Get the kids off the couch and into the wild with these great survival skills
As a bushcraft practitioner and instructor, I spend a lot of my time teaching people about how to thrive in the wilderness, as well as sustainable practices and resource management. More importantly, I am a father, and passing those skills down, and developing the next generation’s interest in the outdoors is something I am deeply passionate about.
When I speak about getting the younger generation interested in the outdoors, it’s not just camping and survival skills that benefit them. On top of the benefits to mental health, wellbeing, confidence and the fact that increased exposure to nature and the outdoors can help children develop an appreciation of nature and the environment, there is the obvious link between survival skills and the safety, resilience, and capability of those children taking part in potential emergencies.
My children are 8, 6, and 2-years-old, and they all know what the recovery position is and how to call an ambulance in a medical emergency. They have all practiced how to put their mother and me in the recovery position should we be injured or incapacitated at home, or while we are out and about.
That knowledge alone fills me with confidence that they will not only be able to help us in an emergency, but should a friend, schoolmate, or neighbor be hurt, they will be able to help.
First aid is the number one priority in a survival situation if there is an injury. No one ever died of hunger within minutes, but they can easily die of blood loss, or from a compromised airway, within minutes. For this reason, I have prioritized first aid amongst the survival skills I have taught my children, and because we spend so much time outdoors I think it’s very important that they have those skills.
I don’t expect my children to be able to apply a tourniquet or do CPR just yet but the recovery position can and does, save people’s lives, and practicing it is a fun and non-traumatic introduction to first aid for young children.
Beyond the essentials of first aid, there are a lot of survival skills that children love to learn and it’s always good to start with the skills they will enjoy practicing such as knife skills, making a fire, shelter, and wild food skills.
It’s no good putting children off the outdoors with a militaristic approach to survival skills training. Instead, practice the skills with them that they will enjoy, and that is within their grasp.
After all, you are not training your kids to be zombie slaying, Mad Max-style survival machines. You are just showing them how great the outdoors can be, and showing them the fun skills that may help them one day.
So what are the most important outdoor survival lessons I teach my students, and my children? Let’s take a look. You might want to consider some of these if you have kids and want to show them the great outdoors.
4 Best survival skills to teach your children
I know it might seem very obvious to you already, but if you are reading this, just make sure whatever you do with your kids, it is supervised and safe. Of course, I am sure any parent is already eager to enjoy the outdoors themselves, but since we are showing our kids how to use some of the basic tools we use outdoors, and how to perform some basic fire skills, all of those require an element of safety.
So let’s dig into the four best survival skills you can show your children to start their interest in the outdoors.
1. Teaching kids survival knife skills
Now before I get started on mentioning knives and children in the same phrase, let me just say I realize it is a popular opinion amongst liberals and city folk that knives are dangerous weapons. Knives are far too often seen as weapons rather than tools when in fact they are no different to a screwdriver or a wrench.
This perception of survival knives as a weapon puts parents and teachers off letting their children use them. There is also the health and safety culture we live in which may, from an institutional point of view, make it very difficult to use knives with children in an educational setting, or from a parenting point of view make you so worried about the consequences of giving your child a knife that you just don’t.
Children benefit from being trusted with ‘grown-up’ tools as long as they are supervised properly.
Being trusted to do some whittling or carving is a massive confidence boost to children, and if they do it regularly is a great exercise in care, safety, and concentration.
If you haven’t already noticed, a knife is a crucial tool when you are outdoors. I am sure I don’t need to mention it, but they cut, peel, slice, can be used for building, sharpening, cooking and so many other duties. If you don’t want your child to put up with any risks associated with being outdoors, then, by all means, keep them indoors.
We are living in a day and age when children are moving more and more towards obesity, are weaker, and have less stamina than children from previous generations. This is simply because they aren’t made to do physical chores anymore and spend far too much time swiping and prodding at iPad’s and phones.
Being able to sharpen a stick to toast a marshmallow, or make a whistle, or some simple beads with a knife and a piece of willow, fill a child with confidence, will improve their behavior because they appreciate that they are trusted with ‘grown-up’ jobs, and will make them stronger and more dextrous.
There are all sorts of great things that young children can achieve with a knife and a bit of help. My youngest son’s specific knife-related chore at the moment is cutting up fungi that we have foraged (he is two-years-old) he also does other simple cooking chores around the campfire or in the kitchen at home.
Insert picture 2; chopping wild mushrooms.
2. Fire making skills
Staring into the flames of a campfire is a tradition that beats the TV, hands down. And children love to make campfires, even young children can learn to use simple fire steel for fire-lighting.
To build a fire you need kindling (grass, dry leaves), tinder (small twigs, sticks), and fuel (branches, logs). Start by making a small pile of kindling and tinder, light the kindling using matches and then slowly add more tinder to the pile. Gradually add bigger sticks and branches as the heat builds up, once it’s hot enough, place logs in to the middle of the fire in a star pattern, pushing them further in and replacing them as they burn.
If you have no matches:
- Flint and Steel – Striking flint against steel creates a spark that can be used to start a fire.
- Fire Plough – All you need is a hard stick and a soft plank. Simply push the stick down the plank along the same line, creating shavings. Push the shavings into the tinder and once enough hot shavings hit the tinder, a fire should ignite. This method requires stamina and endurance.
- Magnifying Lens – In sunny weather, a magnifying glass, eyeglasses, or a glass of water can be used to start a fire. Using one of these, focus sunlight onto a small point on tinder which will ignite the fire.
- AA Battery and Gum Wrapper – Using the foil from a gum wrapper, create a coil that spans for the negative terminal, to the positive terminal. Hold the wrapper in place on both ends and the wrapper will ignite from the middle. Apply to tinder quickly because it will burn quickly.
I have included an instructional from my son on how to make a fire using a fire steel. This simple survival skill is something that even some adults can’t even achieve, yet is such an essential survival skill.
Children learn very quickly to light and build survival fires and once this basic skill is mastered with matches and fire steel they can move on to cooking on the campfire and combining this activity with their search for wild food.
Teaching fire making skills to children is just a basic survival skill for kids, but it is one that can also be improved upon as they get older and more experienced, and they can learn so many various ways of making a fire to broaden that experience.
3. Teaching children survival food skills in the wild
Once upon a time, we used to be completely self-sufficient. Collecting berries, mushrooms, and other wild food used to be part of everyday life. This is less the case now, more than ever before, as the convenience of supermarkets and fast food grows and the diminishing knowledge among the general population makes wild food inaccessible, and to many people, just plain ‘yucky’.
There is no excuse for this as there is a great variety of delicious wild food out there, and at a time when the cost of living is increasing dramatically why not save a bit of cash and try some wild food instead.
While teaching your kids about food that they can already find in the wilderness is a great way to pique their interest in the outdoors, also teaching them basic gardening skills when they are at an early age is a great way to introduce them to a more self-sufficient and healthy future.
This image below is the collection of edible mushrooms my children and I were able to pick just on a short hike outdoors.
Hunting berries has also always been a favorite pastime of children, but why stop there with careful supervision and teaching children can pick mushrooms and help prepare wild game and fish.
Also, consider the benefits of helping children who are picky eaters, it’s all psychological so as long as they are enthusiastic about eating something, how better to build that enthusiasm than to find it pick it and cook it before they eat it, they will love it even if it’s disgusting after that build up.
DISCLAIMER; make sure you teach your children not to eat anything they pick until you have confirmed that it is safe to eat and make sure your knowledge, particularly when it comes to fungi is up to scratch. You’d never forgive yourself if you accidentally poisoned one of your children.
4. Teaching your children how to make a survival shelter
Children love building, whether it’s dens made out of blankets under a dining table, towers with blocks or dens in the garden. So why not take it a step further and show them how to build a survival shelter.
Simple tarps are a great place to start and sleeping out underneath one will be a great adventure.
Finding or making a shelter is the number one priority in a survival situation. Our bodies are not made to combat harsh conditions such as extreme heat or cold, whereas you can go a few days without food or water.
There are 3 basic shelters you can build quickly with limited resources:
- Leaf Hut – The leaf hut is a simple shelter to build, but a poor defense against wind. You can build this by gathering a pile of leaves and climbing inside. To make it more secure, place sticks in the ground along the outside of the leaf hut.
- Teepee Shelter – This shelter takes a few hours to build, but is more sturdy. Find three long sticks to act as poles and stick them to the ground, having them lean against each other. Proceed to place more sticks and leaves all over the shelter to act as a wall. If possible, tie the poles together with a vine as this will make it more secure. Placing leaves and grass inside will help protect you from the damp ground.
- Lean-to or A-Frame – This shelter will protect you the best from the wind but is the most complex. Find two trees that are about six feet apart from each other. Place a pole/stick horizontally between the trees and secure with vines or your shoelaces. Once secure, lean poles along the side (against the wind) to act as a wall. For more protection, place poles along the other side as well. As before, lay leaves and grass on the floor for insulation.
Remember that everything is an adventure to young children and getting them into the habit of spending time outside and not thinking of mud and rain as a bad thing at a young age will be very beneficial to them in the future whether they encounter a true survival situation or whether they just want to enjoy the outdoors.
Why not take it to the max though and build a log cabin? A couple of years ago my oldest and I built a little child-sized cabin in our woods for him, his brother, and his sister to sleep in and he loved it. It was a hard day’s work but he carried logs, helped saw the notches, built a camp bed, and tended the fire throughout the day without complaint and has loved going back there to stay regularly.
The great thing about the outdoors and survival skills is that although I have found these four skills and activities to be particularly engaging for children, this list isn’t exhaustive.
There are unlimited opportunities for engaging children with survival skills and even if at first it’s just a bit of fun, it will set those children up to learn more advanced skills as they grow and to be much more prepared than the average person in case of real emergencies.