Survival for Kids

I recently volunteered to teach a handful of inner-city kids ages 9-10 some wilderness survival skills during their summer day camp program. I was given 1-2 hour slots for five days - not a lot of time to get deep into survival topics, but enough to get kids excited about the woods. Here's a recap of that experience.

I was nervous going into the program because, having volunteered at this establishment during the school year, I know the crowd can be tough. I so desperately wanted to impart a bit of the passion I've felt for the woods that I was overthinking it. I was trying to design the perfect program in my head, a foolproof plan to draw the kids in. I eventually realized that I just needed to set up a fun week, without getting caught up in my usual perfectionism.

My ideas of how to teach survival were heavily influenced by negative example from the wilderness survival school (Tracker School) where I once worked. That place could definitely be inspiring, and I owe much of the skills I possess to that school. But the way they teach survival there is personality- and spirituality-based. The founder of the school, Tom Brown, has cult status among many of his students. Brown, in turn, teaches that all his skills came from an Apache named Grandfather, who Brown has blown up into nothing short of a demigod. Brown teaches with fire and brimstone-type affect that society is evil, and its collapse is immanent. He teaches that the only path to happiness lies in emulating Grandfather, that we must strive for his tracking and survival skills. These skills allegedly included the ability to tell from a fox track in dry leaves whether or not the animal's bladder is full, to walk into the woods without so much as a knife and thrive, to spiritually sense people's or predators' bad intentions from miles away, and even to bend fire or move a hanging feather with one's mind. I witnessed a live webcast wherein he "unveiled" a new spiritual skill that would be, and I quote, "the difference between moving a feather....and stopping a truck".

I'll admit I once believed all these things were possible and did in fact strive to emulate Grandfather. I've had to force myself to get a grip on reality, to be able to enjoy a walk in the woods without stressing out that I wasn't seeing every track and sensing every animal within a 30 meter radius.

And so, after silently freaking out for a few weeks about this program, I realized that I should relax and just make the program fun. No need to worry about getting the kids to try to be Grandfather or some crap. No need to go all Tom Brown on anyone. Just. Get. Outside. And. Have. Fun. And teach some of the more important survival lessons along the way.

Day 1: It's All in Your Head

I gathered my group of kids and after introductions, asked them a dozen or so questions about where their food and water comes from, how they take shelter and sleep at night, and related inquiries about how they stay alive in the city. The kids were sharp for 9-10 year old city dwellers. They all knew that chickens have to be raised and killed, and that potatoes must be grown and harvested. When asked what he would do if he didn't have shelter at night, one kid said he knew where there was a homeless shelter and he'd just go there. Another said they would have to sleep in caves. Most of them had had some exposure to fishing and/or camping.

I then asked them to imagine they went camping with their families, in the deep woods of Maine, with no roads or houses for 100 miles. They get separated from the family and get lost. Panicking, they rush around yelling and searching, but to no avail. They wander for hours, getting hungry, thirsty and tired. It's getting dark. What do they do?

When asked what they thought the most important survival tool in that situation might be, answers ranged from guns and bow-and-arrows to knives. They seemed a little skeptical when I pointed to my head and said "You're all wrong. Your most important survival tool is in your skull."

I proceeded to lecture that a positive, confident attitude can be the difference between life and death in any survival situation. Surprisingly, the kids seemed to understand this concept right away. They were tuned in, not goofing off for the most part. They seemed to absorb and appreciate the idea.

The next part of the "brain" lesson was paying attention to detail. I had passed out some materials for later, including new bandanas still in the packaging. On the packaging for each bandana, I wrote the following three phrases with bold black permanent marker: "3 fingers", "29 years", and "41 dollars". After I'd passed them out and had the kids take out their bandanas and throw away the packaging, I told them I was going to ask three trick questions for which I'd already given the answers. First, I asked how many fingers I was holding up behind my back. Second, I asked them if they knew how old I was. Finally, I had them guess how much cash was in my wallet. Two kids had seen and questioned the "3 fingers" inscription, so they got the first answer. None of the kids got the second or third, but a volunteer did. I told them the lesson was that they should try to question and scrutinize their world as much as possible. In a survival situation, this too can be the difference between life and death.

Next up was another lesson visual awareness. I taught the difference between peripheral and tunnel vision: you need tunnel vision to focus on details, but you need peripheral vision to catch movement and keep things in perspective. I tried to demonstrate this with an exercise using colored index cards. The kids paired off and each got four different colors of index cards. The idea was to have the partner write a sentence on a card and have the other try to read it from peripheral vision. Not possible, of course, but they could tell what color it was! As it turns out I sort of botched the exercise because I accidentally had them read it with tunnel vision first. But, I think they got the idea.

Next I wanted to get them thinking about their four senses besides vision. I had the kids pair up. One would wear a blindfold (the bandana) while the other would make sure his partner didn't crash into anything or hurt himself. We then did a blindfolded walk down two city blocks and back. The kids loved it, but in retrospect I would have trained the other volunteers ahead of time to do the leading, and have all the kids blindfolded at once. That's because the non-blindfolded partner did a lot of hand-holding and leading when the point was for the blindfolded kid to find his way more or less independently. To make matters worse, we had a panicky older volunteer who barked orders at the kids to "Hold hands, don't let go of your partner! This is about team work!" Still, the kids were sharp and I think they got the idea. One kid, unsolicited, talked about how he could navigate by listening to the steady sounds of machinery coming from a couple blocks away. Another said he could tell by the feel of the ground that he was still on the sidewalk and going the right way. I could have cried from joy.

The real highlight of the day, of course, was that the kids got to keep their camouflage bandanas.

Day 2: Shelter

The first thing you need to do in any survival situation, after checking your attitude and plugging into your surroundings, is find shelter. Barring a cave or other natural protection, the debris shelter is often the best way to go. It takes the shape of a 1-man tent: You find a sturdy limb as long as you are tall plus arms length and lean it against something around knee height or brace it with Y-shaped branches. Then you "rib" it with sturdy branches, put some smaller lattice of twigs on that, and cover it with massive amounts of leaves, grass, or other insulation. You stuff the inside with the same. Then you build a small square door frame in front of the open end, just big enough to crawl through. Do this by pounding a couple Y-sticks into the ground and putting cross beams into the debris. Finally, you stuff a shirt or tarp full of insulation and after you crawl inside, you plug the door with the shirt.

I filled my truck with such materials so that the kids could build one in the yard of the building where the program operates. We built a decent shelter in about 45 minutes, me sawing limbs for them and they doing nearly all of the construction themselves. Of course, everyone had to get a turn cutting a limb for fun. The kids were weary of all the worms and bugs in the debris, but I think everyone took a shot at lying in the shelter. They ate it up! I don't think I would have changed a thing about Shelter Day.

Day 3: Traps

I have always been fascinated by the idea that you can use nothing more than raw materials from the woods to trap, kill and eat a wild animal. Since I was a boy, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I wanted to share that fascination with the kids, without causing an epidemic of dead neighborhood cats. So I built a bunch of simple figure-4 deadfall traps just big enough to take out a mouse, with very light deadfalls so we wouldn't have any bruised knuckles.

I had just enough time to show them how to set up the traps, but I don't think anyone really got it. Those things are hard for me  to set up, so it may have been too ambitious for an hour long session. The kids thought the traps were cool, for sure. And they got to keep them, if they so desired. But in retrospect, I probably should have found a way to make it easier - perhaps by using the split-stick deadfall (easier to set up).

I also brought in some deer skin I had tanned myself, and a rabbit fur. The kids were much more fascinated by the skins than by the traps. Noted for next time.

Day 4: Field Trip

The other volunteers and I drove the group out to a hiking trail that follows a mountain ridge not too far away. My idea was to simply teach the kids how to follow the blazes to stay on the same trail, stay within hearing range of us volunteers, and do a head count any time I yelled for one. Beyond that, I just let them run wild. They absolutely GOBBLED UP their freedom, running ahead then back, yelling every time they found an interesting bug, animal or mushroom, and obliging my periodic calls for a head count with overwhelming enthusiasm. I showed them that pine cambium can be chewed for its sugar and vitamin content and that if you lack a knife, you can smash open a piece of quartz to get a blade sharp enough to harvest the bark. They all tried it. While no one really liked it, they all had a good time patting each other on the back for being so bold as to try it. We also chewed grass stems and ate blackberries. I can scarcely think of a hike I've enjoyed so much - their enthusiasm is contagious.

Day 5: Fire

I demonstrated primitive fire making via the bow drill and hand drill. Once I'd lit the first coal and blown it into flame, I had the kids help me build a tipi structure to catch the flames. Once the fire was roaring, anyone who wanted to took turns working on getting a bow drill or hand drill coal with my help. For the bow drill, I would assume the usual position and have them do the same, only opposite me. They would put their foot on the other side of the spindle on the fire board, hold the opposite side of the bow, and put their hand on top of mine over the hand hold.

I was anxious for this to work, so that they could achieve that unique feeling of creating fire. To that end, I roasted all my bow drill parts in the oven at low temperature the night before in order to cook the humidity out of them. It worked VERY well. I've never seen such an effective bow drill kit!

Once everyone had a go at fire-making, we brought out the real goods: hot dogs, marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers. I carved a bunch of hot dog sticks and the kids feasted.

I was sad when it was all over. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

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