“Where’s my child?”
This scenario is every parent’s worst nightmare. A parent’s protective instincts are not comforted by the unknown. For a small percentage of parents, this scenario will play out in reality as children may wander away, lured by their curiosity or thrust into emergency situations through no fault of their own. “Lost-proofing” children requires a cognizant effort from both parent and child, and children can play an active role in their own safety too. Children can be taught to recognize the signs leading up to an emergency, and adults can prepare them with the skills and equipment to address them.
“ONLY BY THINKING ABOUT THE WORST CAN WE PLAN FOR IT.”
BE PROACTIVE ADULTS
The worst case scenario is hard to process as adults because it is highly emotional. Only by thinking about the worst can we plan for it. This may mean taking photos of the treads on your child’s shoes. It may mean establishing a phone chain of who you need to contact for assistance. Whatever you feel is necessary is better considered before anything happens than in the middle of it. These actions create a bubble of safety that will keep your loved ones safe but will make your actions seem overprotective by those who don’t share your mindset. If your child’s safety is worth more to you than what others think of your actions, none of these measures take safety too far.
The first step in lost-proofing a child starts with being a responsible adult. Adults must have plans in place to account for a child’s whereabouts. Know their abilities and preparedness by playing an active role in their life and encouraging them to develop good habits such as awareness.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT STRANGERS
In “Protecting the Gift” security expert and author Gavin De Becker suggests children be taught not to seek out a policeman but a woman for help instead. De Becker explains how children see the world from a shorter point of view and may confuse a security guard (or anyone in uniform with a badge for that matter) for a policeman. In a crowded mall or at an amusement park, not all strangers are “bad people.” Females, according to De Becker, will be the better choice in asking for help. I suggest children be taught some basic ways a true threat can take advantage of them. Just as many are taught, “don’t take candy from a stranger,” you must also let them know candy is not always the gift, and other incentives to comply with a stranger will sound too good to be true. Teach children to trust only those you have vetted. Children should know they are responsible for their safety and they should learn not to give out sensitive information (home address, phone number or presence of an alarm system) that could hurt them or their family.
“IF YOUR CHILD’S SAFETY IS WORTH MORE TO YOU THAN WHAT OTHERS THINK OF YOUR ACTIONS, NONE OF THESE MEASURES TAKE SAFETY TOO FAR.”
Since children typically spend more time in urban/suburban areas than the deep woods, encounters with human threats are more likely than animal threats in the great outdoors. In wilderness settings, avoiding strangers in an emergency can be the difference between life and death. Should a ground rescue be underway, a child may view a search and rescue volunteer as a stranger. They wear bright clothing, have lights and radios and can look intimidating to a child. A small child may mistake all the extra equipment they carry as “monsterlike” and may be frightened they are calling for them by name. Children should learn, it is good to cry out for help and there is safety in numbers.
Children often follow the S.T.O.P. principle (Stay Put, Think, Observe, Plan) better than adults. Rather than wandering around, children tend to stay put naturally. If they are prepared, they can wait in this manner for as long as necessary. Children are often helped by instinctive survival behavior during emergencies. When they get cold, they huddle down and when their awareness kicks in that something feels out of place, their “stranger danger” defense mechanisms take over and they may run from danger.
Children also see the woods differently than full-grown adults. We may tend to bypass a natural shelter, whereas children will exploit the smallest of spaces. When sheltered in place, children reduce the chances of getting injured and limit the search area where professionals will be looking. It is the parent’s job to let them know the importance of staying put when lost. If the child remembered to communicate their destination and course of travel, it is only a matter of time before they will be found. However, children are not vigilant at all times and they miss the signs and may not pick up on external clues in light of outside influences. Peer pressure, attractive distractions, and naiveté work against their ability to stay out of harm’s way. Therefore, it is wise to equip children with a kit they can carry with them to stack the odds in their favor should an emergency arise.
GIVE THEM SKILLS
Children can be taught how to use signal mirrors or other reflective devices to reflect rays of sunlight. For most rescues, ground resources will be utilized before aerial. While a whistle can be recognized easier in a dense forest than a reflection of light, reflective signaling is an excellent skill to put in your child’s tool box.
The childhood story of Hansel and Gretel featured a trail of breadcrumbs to mark the way the two storybook characters traveled. Teach your children to make cairns (rock markers) on your path or bend branches to expose lightercolored undergrowth. Make sure they know their surroundings.
One scenario that must be examined is the injured parent. Introduce your child to your personal kit and what you carry as an adult. Don’t “hide” knives or other tools normally reserved for adults as your child may be the one who needs to use it while you are incapacitated. Give them the confidence and self-esteem to act like an adult when it’s needed. This “big kids table” initiation inspires confidence in children to act like an adult and it grows the bond between parent/ guardian and child.
Lost-proofing is more than warning a child and giving them some basic emergency supplies. Lost-proofing means folding children into the world of adult survival skills in a kid-friendly way. The delivery can be difficult given the grave circumstances of failure. However, children are capable of survival tasks and extraordinary feats of willpower, doggedness and resolve. By taking an active role parenting and fostering survival skills, we help lost-proof the next generation of outdoorsmen and prevent living the nightmare of not knowing, “Where’s my child?!”
Survival Awareness Games
Children must rely on their strengths for survival. Pound for pound, a child cannot overpower an adult. Mentally, children do not have the same schooling or lifetime of experiences to fall back on intelligence the way an adult can. Children can be quick and they may have good stamina but something they can develop at an early age is awareness. A child can use awareness to solve survival problems and it is the obligation of their guardian/mentor to develop these skills through exercises and games.
Children love binoculars and the power of magnification. To a child, the outdoors is an infinite space. Give them a way to focus on a small area and ask them what they see. Tell them to use a magnifying glass to identify the spots on the underside of St. John’s Wort, have them use their hands as “blinders” to survey the landscape for conifer tree patches, use those binoculars to differentiate between various black birds. When children learn to use their eyes to detect little nuances, they sharpen their skills of detection.
Children tend to have very keen senses. Ever see a child smell something first before they eat it? Let children smell certain woods to identify cedar from oak. Let them smell tobacco from a distance and see how far they can pick up the scent. Give them a blindfold test of various camp foods and see how discriminating their sense of smell really is. Of course, if a child is really young, monitor what they smell so they don’t put something poisonous or toxic in their mouth out of habit.
A great awareness game is to play hide-and-go seek with an animal call and camouflage. This is best done with one adult hiding and another adult walking side-by-side with the child. A (turkey, goose, duck, moose) call is made and the child must follow the sound. With older children, this game can be played in a large field at night. For an advanced challenge, the adult can use darkness to move about a few times before settling in place letting the seeker find you.
There are many creative ways of helping build the awareness skills of children. If a child is able to identify a good shelter, the right wood, sources of food, signs of life and assets in the field, they are on the right track for increasing their survivability.
A CHILD’S FIRST KNIFE
A child must learn to respect a knife and demonstrate maturity around it before they can be trusted with one. An adult can help the child learn this respect through gradual steps and the slow integration of knife culture into a child’s life.
Children can start by respecting “toy” knives. We don’t want children to develop bad habits and accidentally cut anyone with their first real knife. This is part of the learning process and should be closely followed. I also believe in establishing respect for “dad’s knife” or a parent’s knife. Children must know real knives can cut and they should see how an adult handles a knife.
At some point, a child should be given a chance to use an adult knife but it shouldn’t be whenever they want. The adult should maintain control of when it is allowed and the child should learn they are always earning your trust. Denying them use of a knife can build frustration, but in the long run it builds respect when they receive their own blade.
When a child finally is ready, based on your judgment of their maturity, give them a real knife with a true sharpened edge. Monitor children for safe cutting techniques and only allow them to use the knife in your presence.
At some point, slowly remove the restrictions but make sure they know their knife can be taken from them at any time. Remind them that respect and responsibility for the knife never ends. Let them develop pride for their gear and foster their understanding of the blade through quality time in the field.
Have an Everyday Kit
The child’s emergency kit will be different from its adult counterpart. Many of the items are appropriate only when the child reaches a certain age and maturity level. There is no reason a child should not have these items tucked away while touring an amusement park, skiing or even at school. The contents of the kit will vary depending on the child’s age, maturity and physical ability:
- I.C.E. (In Case of Emergency) card
- Emergency blanket
- Hand warmers
- Squeeze (LED) flashlight
- Chemical light stick
- Pocket first-aid kit
Optional: pre-paid cell phone
Since children are told to always ask for help and they are quick to signal when something is wrong, give them the tools to do this. A whistle can be carried on a zipper pull or key chain and the sound can be heard much farther than the average adult cry for help. The In Case of Emergency (I.C.E.) card should have the child’s communication information necessary to reunite him or her with their guardian after handing it off to a responsible adult.
A simple pocket-sized first aid kit can work wonders to boost a child’s morale and confidence. How many times have you seen a child stop crying the minute a strip bandage is put over a small cut? Every child should be given an emergency blanket to wrap themselves in as well as hand warmers and chemical light sticks.
The emergency blanket provides reflective ability and blocks the wind. Hand warmers not only warm the hands but also provide additional warmth inside the emergency blanket. With an adequate wind break and a source of warmth, a child can spend a night in relative comfort sitting on top of their school backpack. With an activated chemical light stick nearby, a child will be more comfortable sheltering in one location than wandering through the dark.
The child’s kit should include some sort of nutritional treat and, if possible, something to drink. It improves a child’s positive mental attitude and can take their mind off of their situation. If space is not at a premium, a pad and pen or crayons can help them harness creativity to endure a night under a space blanket shelter.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.