The kids in my neighborhood are old enough to run in a pack, but young enough that they keep grown-ups on radar. They may head out on bikes and skateboards for a time, but return to circle any present adult in a four-foot radius, like coyotes surrounding a carcass. For moms, this means many, many summer days of herding the pack into energy-burning activities.
Summer vacation is a good opportunity to teach kids basic survival skills. From growing food to first aid, kids love survival lessons. Make up your own list of activities, but give them enough leeway to experiment. Their ideas might surprise you.
When I started a garden club for kids, I worried if they would act too rowdy and destroy the plants, if they’d give up, or if I’d end up doing all the work. As it turned out, even the kids who would rather play Xbox than run through a sprinkler love being a part of the garden club. They have pride in ownership, in being able to take something to their families’ tables.
Their way of doing things is sometimes silly, but I let them try. Last year, I broke a cucumber plant in transport. My son acted as though it was a wounded pet. I wanted to throw it out, but he said, “It’s sick. It needs to be tucked in.” He planted the cucumber, then used a rock as a pillow, and a leaf for a blanket. I was surprised when the plant took off and became one of the season’s best producers.
Teaching kids to grow their own food gives them knowledge and power. Even if you don’t have much room, growing a container garden with high-producing plants such as strawberries and cherry tomatoes will provide several hours of entertainment.
2. Managing Fire
Giving kids the ability to start and control fire is a powerful motivator. It might be one of the scarier skills to teach, but I’ve found that most kids learn a healthy respect for fire after the first time they scald a finger.
Teaching this skill takes a lot of patience. It’s hard for beginners to build a proper structure to start a fire, and they might have to do it two or three times before getting it right. Show them how the kindling and logs must be placed in a way that allows fire to draw in oxygen from all sides.
I like to find a place, such as a camping spot or an open field, where we can have two fires: one built by the adults, and one by the kids. They kick into high gear when there is competition, running for kindling and sticks as if they’re on an Easter egg hunt.
When they gain competency in starting a fire, they can be taught how it’s contained and extinguished. Make a contest of who can collect the most rocks for a fire ring, or dig the deepest pit for a hidden night fire. Give each kid a bucket to collect water for extinguishing the fires; they’ll have so much fun listening to the hiss of dying embers and pretending to send smoke signals, they won’t even realize they’re doing all the work.
Story continues below picture
3. Outdoor Cooking
Why do all the cooking when the kids will do it for themselves? Once they’re used to managing a fire, the next logical step is learning to cook over it. If they’re not accustomed to cleaning animals, making “hobo bags” can be a first step.
Hobo bags are whatever meat and vegetables you have on hand, wrapped in tinfoil, and roasted over the fire. If you want to get creative, you can get kids to find wild onion for flavoring.
Better yet, give each kid a basket or bag, and hit the trails with a field guide of edible plants. Kids quickly memorize plants that are easy to identify, such as prickly pear, morel mushrooms, dandelions and clover.
Teaching kids about shelter can be tricky. While most kids like the idea of roughing it, it’s easy to turn them away from outdoor living. The first few times out, make sure they are warm and dry enough to enjoy it.
Build up their confidence by taking walks after dark, to identify sounds they will hear during an all-night trip. A fun nighttime game is to give each kid a flashlight, and let them follow the bellows of a bullfrog until they find it. Usually, the frog will patiently allow himself to be viewed, at least briefly, before splashing away.
To get kids used to dealing with rain, take them on a nightcrawler hunt. Allowing them to collect the worms in a soda bottle prevents them from spilling their worms all over the ground during the chase.
5. Water Collection
Water collection can be taught at any time, and at virtually any place. When the forecast calls for rain, challenge kids by creating a contest of who can collect the most water. Send them on a scavenger hunt to find baggies, plastic grocery bags, or other containers. Teach them different methods of hanging, spreading and half-burying containers to catch water, and let each one develop his or her own preferred way to catch water.
When the water is collected, show them different methods of purifying water, such as boiling, filtering or adding tablets.
6. First Aid
Kids love the drama of playing on a mock rescue team. Invent scenarios that allow kids to administer first aid using on-hand materials. One child can pretend to have a broken leg, while the others make up an appropriate splint with sticks and torn-up pieces of an old shirt.
Assembling first-aid kits is also a great learning experience for kids. It familiarizes them with the different products available. If they’re made to pack their kits on a hike or a camping trip, they will also learn how to prioritize supplies.
What would you add to the list? Tell us in the comments section below.