Teaching Kids Survival Skills
7 Fun Adventures For Parents And Kids To Learn Outdoor Safety
Teaching kids wilderness survival skills instills confidence, enhances self-esteem, provides necessary exercise, and creates a bond with nature.
We will focus on 7 simple, yet fundamental, skills important for survival in the great outdoors. Understanding these concepts is vital to safely enjoy the wilderness, but learning these skills can be a fun adventure as well. After all, the easiest skills for a child to master are the ones they don’t know they're learning.
Remember to keep it simple and have fun
To teach the following skills, you don’t have to go out and get intentionally lost in the wilderness. These lesson plans can be conducted in a local park, a campground, or in your own backyard.
Even if you’re no wilderness expert yourself, that doesn’t mean you can’t get your kids involved with outdoor recreation. In this article, we'll provide information and instructions on how to teach these lessons in a fun, playful manner.
Let's get to it!
Build Your Own Survival Kit
The first step to teaching children basic wilderness survival skills is to help them create a survival kit, because the best way to handle emergencies is to be prepared.
Start by assembling the items for a basic kit:
How to make a basic survival kit for kids
- A small pack, like a fanny pack, to hold their supplies.
- Fire-starting tools: matches, lighter, magnifying glass
- An emergency blanket
- Water filter
- 4 large, resealable plastic storage bags
- Pocket flashlight
Have the kids fit all of these items into their small packs, leaving room for a first aid kit, which we will cover later.
Treasure Hunt (Compass and Map Reading)
The goal of this exercise is for your kids to use a map and compass to pinpoint their location and find their way to a destination.
What You’ll Need
You’ll need a compass and a map for each child. The map can be something simple like a hand-drawn sketch with simple landmarks. For older kids or more advanced skill-building, you can print out an image of the area from Google Maps or use a real topographical map.
If you don't know how to use a compass, here's a quick video to catch you up to speed. It also makes a great intro you can watch together with the kids as part of the lesson.
Begin with the compass. Have the kids gather-round while you point out the cardinal points on a compass, explaining how the arrow on the compass always points North. You should also point out the midpoint directions like Northwest, Southeast, etc.
Once you’ve gone over the cardinal points, take out a map and direct their attention to the compass rose, which indicates the same cardinal directions on the map. Align the Northern direction on the map with the arrow on the compass. Using these two tools, you can find your way from one location to another; the use of a map and compass the travel from one point to another is called orienteering.
Introduce the kids to the concept of triangulation, or pinpointing your location, using the landmarks around them. Landmarks can include your house, a road, body of water, or whatever other identifiable locations you find yourself near.
Once the kids have a firm grasp on the cardinal directions and using the map and compass together, have them practice finding North on their own compass. Give simple directions in a small area such as “ travel 5 steps north, 10 steps west, and 8 steps south.” Make sure they can properly identify each direction and arrive in the proper place.
Additionally, have them travel as a group from one landmark to another using a map and compass. For example, begin at a river marked on the map and have them make their way to a nearby road. Do not provide instruction unless necessary; see if they can work it out on their own.
Once you feel your group has a firm grasp on orienteering, it’s time for their final test.
The Ultimate Test: Treasure Hunt
Scout out your location beforehand and identify a good route for your kids to follow based on your knowledge of their age, skill, and attention level.
Create a map for each child to an obvious landmark like a large tree, a body of water, or a building. At that landmark, hide directions to the next one.
Example: Walk northeast 300 paces, turn west and take another 50 steps.
Create as many hints and involve as many landmarks as you desire, with hints hidden in each to help them find the next step, depending on how long you want the treasure hunt to take. Make the last landmark contain a fun reward such as candy or snacks.
Campfire and S'mores (Fire-Building)
The goal of this exercise is for kids to successfully build and maintain a fire.
What You’ll Need
Though there are several fire-starting tools, set your youngsters up for success by using the simplest of these: a long-stem lighter. In addition, you will need plenty of tinder, kindling, and logs or branches of varying widths.
Begin the lesson by explaining how to choose a location for your campfire:
- Find a cleared area with little to no grass on the ground.
- Look up and check that there are no low-hanging branches.
- Clear away any sticks, leaves or scrubs from your firepit area.
- Always choose a spot downwind from your campsite.
- Look for areas protected from high winds.
Once you’ve chosen your location, find several large rocks to build a fire pit to contain your campfire. If there aren’t any large stones available nearby, dig a fire pit out of the ground, piling the dirt along the outside to create a bowl in the earth.
Note: Fires should be built only in places that allow them. Always check the rules and regulations of a wilderness area before lighting a campfire.
Once you have your fire pit, it’s time to have the kids gather fuel. To make a fire that will catch, you need tinder, kindling, and branches of varying sizes. Show them examples of each.
Tinder is any light, flammable substance. Examples include cattail fuzz, pine needles, pinecones, and dead leaves. Kindling comes in the form of small, thin twigs. Look for those no thicker than a pencil.
Once you have your fuel piles, show them how to start the fire by constructing a teepee out of kindling and placing plenty of tinder in the center.
After lighting the tinder and kindling, add progressively larger branches onto the fire. Be sure to explain how fire needs oxygen, so too much wood at once can extinguish your flames.
Have your group practice identifying and collecting tinder as well as constructing teepees out of their kindling and small branches. If you like, you can introduce the log cabin fire-building method as well.
Have them practice using the lighters to start small campfires. Once the fire is established, instruct them of the importance of collecting and stacking additional wood to get through the night. Send them off to gather more wood and tell them one person should always remain behind to watch over the fire so it doesn’t spread.
The Ultimate Test: Campfire and S’mores
Set the kids the task of making a fire pit, collecting resources, and lighting a fire unassisted. Assist them with adding the larger logs once the fire is burning well.
As a reward for a job well-done, break out some marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers to make s’mores.
Build A Fort (Shelter Building)
The goal of this exercise is for kids to successfully build a waterproof shelter.
What You’ll Need
You’ll need an emergency blanket and cordage for each kid. Thee kids will also need to collect sticks as the project progresses.
Begin by explaining the importance of a shelter; exposure to the elements is one of the most dangerous situations you can encounter in the forest. Have them assemble a large pile of small branches, about 6 to 10 inches each and the width of a pencil.
Use the small branches to demonstrate how to build a shelter. Build a miniature version of a survival shelter to expedite this process. You can show them several types of shelters, citing the benefits and disadvantages of each. Each type of shelter provides unique advantages for various weather conditions like cold, wind and rain.
Have them pick a type of shelter and attempt to build a miniature version on their own or in small groups. Help them choose a location, explaining that shelters should be built on flat ground, avoiding low spots where water may collect.
The Ultimate Test: Camping Overnight
In a wooded area, instruct each kid to build their own full-sized lean-to, big enough for them to sleep in. Have each youngster collect the sticks necessary for the shelter’s frame and roofing. Provide them with cordage to erect the structure.
Once you check their work, provide them with an emergency blanket to waterproof the structure. Instruct them on using 4 pebbles, wrapped up in the corners, to attach the cordage. Use the cordage to tie the emergency blanket down on the shelter roof securely.
Once the shelters are constructed, have a sleepover! Provide breakfast goodies the next morning and congratulate them on their shelter camp.
When using this fishing hook to catch fish, do not try to set the hook in the fish’s mouth. Instead, let the fish swallow it hole. Due to the weaker aluminum material, allowing the fish to swallow your bait and hook gives you a better chance of catching your dinner.
Wild Hot Chocolate (Water Purification)
The goal is for the kids to be able to identify and purify water sources on their own.
What You’ll Need
You will need a container to hold water, such as a water bottle or canteen, and a metal pot for boiling.
Optional: You could also utilize items such as purification tablets and water filters to demonstrate alternate water-purification methods.
Water is essential to survival; depending on temperature, humidity, physical exertion, and body size, a person can typically only survive 3 days without water. Begin by going over the basics of locating water (pond, stream, snow, rainwater, etc) and why it’s important to purify the water you collect. Identify the various risks of untreated water (bacteria, pesticides, fecal matter, etc) and express how running water is the ideal source to collect from.
Collect water from a natural water source. Show the group how to use a t-shirt as a filter to remove debris, then, using their fire-building skills, construct a fire to boil the water. Water must be boiled for 1 minute to kill all bacteria.
Alternatively, instruct the kids on the use of iodide tablets and water filters as methods to purify water without fire.
The Ultimate Test: Wilderness Hot Chocolate
As a final test for their water purification, have the kids create their own filters. Each child will need a two-liter plastic bottle, gravel, sand, activated charcoal, and breathable fabric. Instruct the kids to build a filter resembling the graphic below. Find a murky source to collect water from that will demonstrate how the water changes colors as it moves through the filter.
When this task is complete and the water has been purified, celebrate by making hot chocolate with the hot, purified water.
Forest Feast (Foraging for Food)
The goal of this exercise is for kids to be able to identify edible plants in nature and to readily distinguish them from inedible plants.
What You’ll Need
Each child will need a pocket field guide to edible plants in their area. These identification manuals have information on plants to avoid and pictures of plants to assist in identification. Each kid will also need a bag or container of some kind to transport their forage back to camp. You will also need corn with the husks attached as well as a few other vegetables for the meal at the end.
Begin by explaining that most plants are inedible. Some plants, edible and inedible, can closely resemble one another, so you should never ingest a plant unless you are absolutely sure you’ve properly identified it.
Mention to your group that chemicals commonly applied to lawns can be harmful or even toxic, so edible plants found near your home are considered unsafe to eat.
Introduce the guidebook and how to use it effectively. Go over a few edible plants native to your area in your guide books, with tips on how to identify them and any inedible plants that they may resemble.
Once your group is familiar with using their guidebooks to identify foliage, it’s time to move the lesson outside. Walk the kids around, pointing out and identifying growing plants and finding the corresponding information in your field guides together. If you’re not in a wilderness area like a forest preserve or campground, show them pictures of edible and inedible plants instead.
Alternatively, see what you can find in or around your home or backyard; edible plants like dandelion, plantain leaves, clover, and purslane are all common backyard weeds.
Once you’ve identified several edible plants, go over which parts of each plant are edible. Sometimes only the roots or leaves are safe for ingestion, sometimes the entire plant is edible, etc. Show your group how to gather and carry their wild forage in a resealable plastic bag, a large piece of bark, an emergency blanket made into a foraging bag, or some other container.
The Ultimate Test: A Foraged Wilderness Meal
As a final test for this skill, have your kids forage edible plants on their own. Assign kids, either individually or in teams of 2, an edible plant to collect. Give them each a forage bag and their field guides and send them out for a predetermined amount of time.
Start a fire and husk the corn carefully while the teams are foraging. You will cook the meals inside these husks. When the kids return, carefully check their forage to make sure they have collected the correct plant. Show them how to put their forage in the husks with the vegetables and corn and cook them over the coals of the fire. If the teams found any edible berries, have these for dessert.
First Aid Race (Basic First Aid)
The goal of this exercise is to help kids assemble a first aid kit and teach them basic first aid skills they may need to use in a survival situation.
What You’ll Need
- Bandages of various sizes
- Antibiotic ointment
- Itch/burn relief cream
- Roll of gauze
- Sterile Wipes
- First Aid tape
- Eye drops
- A small bag to act as their first aid kit
While you don’t want to scare your group with horrific tales of what may occur while hiking or camping, they do need to be aware of what could happen and how to properly react. Impress upon the group the importance of staying calm and assessing a situation, then address how to treat several injuries prevalent in outdoor recreation. Common injuries in the outdoors include cuts, scrapes, insect bites, minor burns, rashes, and sprains. Go over each item provided for them in their first aid kit as well as how and when to use it.
Some examples of topics to cover include:
- The importance of cleaning wounds and using sterile bandages to keep injuries as clean as possible.
- Applying cold water and burn ointment to a burn.
- Insect stings and how to remove stingers with a fingernail.
- Using tweezers to remove insect stingers or splinters.
- Washing poison ivy rashes and treating with itch relief ointment.
Have your group split up into pairs and practice treating one another for pretend injuries. Check their work and provide feedback.
The Ultimate Test: Fast First Aid
For a fun, final, test of their basic first aid skills, split the group in two and assign one group various “injuries” out of hearing of the other group. Set the “injured” group up in a mock scenario and have the uninjured group find them, assess their injuries, and treat them. Time them to see how quickly they can correctly treat each injury. Then have the groups switch roles. See which team can correctly treat the most injuries in the shortest amount of time.
Developing Skills Over Time
With all our responsibilities, it can seem impossible to find time to learn basic survival skills, let alone time to pass these skills on to the next generation. When it comes to teaching kids wilderness survival though, it doesn’t have to be a chore. Creating meaningful games and fun activities that also include a learning element can be fun for everyone.
Try to incorporate some sort of lesson into any outdoor outing. Take a brief moment to consider where you’re going and what kind of skill could be taught in that location. Learning is a life-long process, so don’t feel like you need to hammer these skills home in one day. Providing kids with the skills they need to survive in a wilderness setting will create more confident kids who are comfortable in nature.