All the research points us outdoors for physical health, wellness, learning, and to pause and appreciate nature. There are some ways to make it easier for adults to venture outdoors with kids in your own family, in classrooms and in day programs. Some pre-teaching of expectation, routines , and information is involved, as well as lots of positive feedback for remembering the expectations and behaviours when you head “out and about.”
As the world opens up after the COVID shut down and the blossoms show their faces, people are enthusiastic about outdoor adventures. Screens are less appealing, and the outdoors beckons. As I am walking and biking and running, it is easy to spot those who are delighting in the experience. It is equally apparent who is stressed with the demands of keeping children safe outdoors. I am going to give your several things guaranteed to make going outside with children more manageable and ensure that everyone is having fun – even the adults in charge of safety and really wanting those in their charge to have engaging outdoor experiences.
I watched in amazement as my friend Anne-Mari opened the door to accept her the frequent deliveries to her home. Her son would stand beside her as she signed for the package. My son, the same age, was not one to stand in one spot when the door opened. His world would open and he was off to explore if escape was an option. He would bolt with me in close pursuit. Daily outdoor adventures required planning and preparation. I came up a bag of tricks that allowed daily outdoor time to become part of our lives, even once his active little sister joined the mix. Some procedures came from supervising 90 kids in an out of school care program. Some came from working with students in my classroom, on fieldtrips, during camp programs, ski/snowboard programs, and even with students at university and teachers in China.
Developing respectful relationships is fundamental to working with groups of children or adults. Have many conversations about what respect is, and what respectful relationships look like. Talk about your expectations. We expect young children to be egocentric, but they do not emerge from that developmental stage without guidance from the people around them. Even young children need to be taught that other people have needs and wants too. Learning to recognize missteps and apologize is part of that learning. The apology must come from wanting to repair a relationship rather than a power based demand.
Model expressing your own feelings. Encourage your child to use words to express their feelings. It will give you the opportunity to respond to your child or student in a respectful way. If someone talks to the child or asks her a question, let her answer. This helps your children to develop relationships apart from you and to develop the confidence to talk to others to keep to keep themselves safe.
My mother was cautious by nature and my father was a neurosurgeon. I spent many days being warned about things that were not safe and looking at my dad’s slides (I know I’m dating myself) of serious head trauma and hearing stories of injury. I was taught what I was not allowed to do. I was not taught that my own safety was more important than being polite. I find that children’s books are a great way to teach safety rules. They give you time to engage your child in conversation about safety so they develop a good understanding. These are some of the key safety rules you want to teach your child.
- Stranger Danger
This safety rule is highly overemphasised. When a stranger says hi, he is most often being friendly rather than a threat. If a person you don’t know asks you to go anywhere, it is odd. Don’t go. If a person makes you feel uncomfortable, then leave immediately. Children should be empowered by this message not frightened that imminent danger is lurking.
- Buddy Rule – Stay Together. Take care of each other.
Our job is to take care of each other. A buddy or a partner may be a sibling or a peer for the program or classroom.
The extension of this is that there is safety in numbers. Be aware that a crowded street is only helpful if children know how to ask for help. Therefore teach children to make their own requests. It may be asking for help from a police officer in a uniform or the clerk at convenience store.
- Traffic Safety
Kids can be impulsive so adults must be vigilant around streets and parking lots. For young kids, I turn it into somewhat of a game with this little poem. We add hand motions and say it together on neighbourhood walks or on fieldtrips. It is a reminder to pause that I found has worked well over the years.
Look both ways before you cross the street.
Use your eyes.
Use your ears,
Before you use your feet.
- Wild animals are not your pets
Educate yourself and your child to the appropriate boundaries required when encountering wild animals. On a bike ride one day, I watched as a grandmother pulled out a sandwich to give her very young granddaughter to feed the coyote hovering at the edge of the garbage can in a park. She unknowingly put that child in danger. Aggressive young coyotes needed to be culled (killed) from Stanley Park in 2021 due to habituating behaviour such as this. You may have seen the signs, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” The same goes for coyotes. Sometimes the safety concerns to both the child and the animal are not as obvious. The squirrel running up your leg could have fleas or a disease transmitted through bites. Feeding the ducks or geese bread could result in unhealthy animals that cannot make the flight south in winter. Feeding raccoons increases the chance of aggressive attacks. As with any animal, it also changes their natural patterns and ability to take care of themselves.
- Not all pets like people
Do not approach an animal unless you have asked the owner. An animal will bite if it is scared and feels trapped.
PLANNING YOUR ADVENTURE:
- Involve kids and Children in Planning the Outing
If the kids are excited about the trip and involved in the planning, they
will be more likely to know what to expect and how to act. Having them
consider the weather, choose appropriate clothing, and pack their snack
in their backpack, not only builds excitement but also develops independence.
- Set Clear Expectations
Children need to “know the rules”. Be clear about what your rules are and communicate them to your child or students. I was very patient with requests, but my children and my students knew I had no time for whining.
If a tantrum or rude behaviour works, it will continue to be used as a strategy for the child to get his own way. Name the behaviour as unacceptable and that you will discuss it at a later time. Public humiliation should be avoided at all costs in that it erodes your relationship with the child, creates even worse behaviour and undermines the child’s self esteem.
Review logical consequences for not following agreed upon rules. This is easier with kids than adults Going home early or sending a kid home from camp only needs to happen once to underline that you will follow through with consequences.
HEADING OUT AND ABOUT:
- Safety Scan
When you first arrive, always involve the kids in a safety scan of the area. You may need to set boundaries around water, traffic, treed areas or animals.
Discuss what safety rules that will be most important today? Discuss this
with students and give frequent positive reinforcement for targeted
- Prompt Observation, Inquiry and Imagination
Encourage children to use all of their senses to make observations. Model making connections to the things this place makes you think of. Encourage children to ask questions and make predications. Don’t be too quick to provide all of the answers. Give them time to consider the possibilities. Starting sentences with I wonder. Encourage factual answers and imaginative play. Again children’s books are a wonderful way to support this thinking.
- Encourage “calculated risks”
Just like adults, kids feel good about conquering something hard. For some kids this could be walking across a log without any help. For others, it could be walking across that same log with someone holding hands with an adult. It may be going down the big slide. Help to instill the belief in your child that she can take on great challenges.
On the playground, when you hear,
“Watch me! Watch me!”.
You will see a kid who feels very proud of something he has just accomplished.
When you here, “Oops.”
Perhaps the puddle was too big. Or perhaps it was deeper than anticipated.
Celebrate that your child or student felt there was a freedom to explore without the pressure of perfection.
One Saturday morning, when my own children were still very young, I walked into the rec room where Larkyn and Tyler were watching television. The sandcastle competition at Spanish Banks was being featured on local tv.
“Hey, do you know where that is?” I asked.
Both kids took a better look and responded with amazement.
“Spanish Banks!” the yelled excitedly in chorus.
I asked “You wanna go?”
Both kids sprang into action.
Larkyn: Tyler, pack your backpack! I’ll get the beach towels.
Tyler: I’ll put the sand toys in the car.
Me: I’ll pack lunch and get the sunscreen. The blanket is already in the fam van with my chair.
Larkyn: Okay. Let’s meet in the fam van in 15 minutes. No being late!
Now it may have taken us longer than 15 minutes to actually get in the family van, en route to Spanish Banks from the suburbs, but not much longer. The kids were motivated to go. They knew what to do. We all had a great day! And it was easy!
The stories and adventures that are told over and over again in the midst of gales of laughter are often outdoor adventures that take us outside into the world where anything can happen. They become the shared experiences that create community and learning that lasts a lifetime. It is well worth taking the steps required to ensure that when you go out, everyone is able to enjoy and learn in the moment. Best of luck on the many outdoor adventures to come.