Safety Tips for Outdoor Adventures with Kids

Posted by Lucas Kelly on 8/10/18 2:48 PM

Ecophobia, or the fear or nature, is a real concern as a generation of young people grow up more and more disconnected from the natural world. Let’s face it—nature can be a scary place: ticks, poison ivy, polluted waters, wild animals, stranger danger, even...dirt! But, all of these elements of nature are easily managed and can help develop countless aspects of children’s awareness, as well as skill sets that cannot be encouraged enough and cannot be experienced elsewhere.

Did you know there is scientific data showing that children who are exposed to dirt and mud are less likely to become ill? According to Jack Gilbert and his writings in a new book titled, Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child's Developing Immune System,  keeping our children away from microbial ecosystems can lead to more sickness than exposing children to such elements. No one wants to send their kids into the backyard to roll around in the mud. But, that’s not the point. The point is, we need to find a balance between the scary and the adventurous. We must not be so afraid of the outdoors that we completely stop going there. 

As an outdoor educator and Lowell’s outdoor science teacher,  I take safety measures into consideration every time I walk into the woods with a group of students. However, things can come up, and almost always do, that I am not expecting. Whether it is simply a tooth that finally falls out of a child’s mouth or a more serious bee sting, being prepared is key.

I hope that these safety tips and simple preparedness measures below make you feel a little more comfortable and that you will take these tips with you as you expose your child to positive nature experiences. Let’s get all this out on the table so that we feel equipped and ready to navigate the natural world! 

Canoe Trip

Hydration

Staying hydrated may be the most important thing to do when involved in outdoor activities. It seems simple when children are playing soccer or running around the back yard. However, when going on an outdoor adventure, whether it be a hike, a paddle in a canoe, or a bike ride, planning ahead and bringing the right amount of water is so important. Notice that I use the phrase, the right amount. That’s the real trick. Some people think that bringing more than what is needed is the right way to go. But that can get really heavy and difficult to carry and can ruin a good hike. On the other hand, too little water can get scary quickly. Take a look at SectionHiker.com’s excellent article on how much water to bring on a hike, as well as recommendations for great hydration packs that can make life easier. 

Want to take some time to learn about water filtration and what makes water drinkable? Take a look at REI’s article on and tips for buying the right backpacking water filter. The simple act of filtering water can be a great lesson for kids to learn that drinkable water is not something that should be taken for granted.  

Sun Protection

I work at the beach in the summertime, and it is always entertaining to see different parents’ techniques for getting sunscreen on their children. There’s the good old “wrangle-and-smother,”  the “put it on but don’t rub it in” technique, and the ever-classic “just put on more clothes.” My personal favorite, however, is the “close-your-eyes-while-I-spray-you-from-top-down” strategy.

Whatever you find yourself doing to get your child protected, just know that you are doing the right thing. Get it on no matter what it takes. You know that sunburns can turn a great day into an uncomfortable night. You also know what your child needs. Some of us burn more easily than others. It is important to take the lead as the adult when it comes to sun protection, because there’s too much fun to be had for children to remember on their own. Here is a great article on sun protection for kids from KidsHealth.org to give you a few tips and tricks as well as some explanation of solar rays.

Bug Protection

I get it, bugs can be scary. To some kids, bugs can be super scary. But, we should try to find the middle ground between exposing children to the not-so-cuddly parts of nature and protecting them from the true dangers of bug bites. For the most part, bug bites are just bug bites. However, there are some bug bites that can be worrisome. The important part is to be safe and not over-do it with the spray. Balance is the key. Here’s a list of the top 10 bug repellents for kids that will help you keep the mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks away.

Poison Ivy

Scary Plants

When it comes to poison ivy, one of my favorite things to teach young children are the sayings, “Hairy vine, no friend of mine” and “Leaves of three, leave it be.” Once I make my students aware of poison ivy, they are identifying and pointing it out within minutes. It is amazing how interested children get when you use words like poison, rash, and toxic. It can actually be a lot of fun to learn about scary plants. But, it is important to teach about and expose children to these plants so that they know how to approach them and feel more comfortable in nature.

While you need to teach children about the plants they shouldn’t touch, it is even more important to stress to children not to eat anything unfamiliar. Mushrooming and foraging for wild plants is a popular activity. But the uninformed can make terrible selections and encounter serious consequences. Children sometimes feel the need to shock and awe and that can mean eating a plant on a dare or a whim. However, eating random plants they find in nature can be a very bad move. What do we do when we need to make sure children don’t eat unknown plants? Teach them about plants and show them some plants that they can safely eat to fill that natural urge to forage for food. The University of Maryland's catalog of poisonous Maryland plants* is a helpful reference, as is this guide to wild edible plants.

*I beg you, don’t look at this list and freak out. This is a list of 100 poisonous plants in Maryland, but the majority of them are only poisonous if eaten or ingested. So, again, don’t worry! Just don’t go roaming through the woods with your child picking and eating everything you see. Be informed. 

Scary Animals

Common sense in nature is one of your best tools. See a big snake curled up getting some sun? Take a look from a safe distance. Note the colors and try to memorize its features. It’s probably best not to pull out the selfie-stick and try to get a close up.

Many trails, parks, and natural spaces will have information regarding wildlife that you may encounter. Take some time to read it and understand how to best respect the space you are using and the animals in it.

Be safe with your food when camping. We are lucky that we can still encounter black bears in some places, but you don’t want them rooting through your cooler in the middle of the night, and they shouldn’t be eating human food. You’ll need to tie your food in a tree or use a bear-resistant container. Here are more food storage tips  from the National Park Service.

If you don’t know what the animal is, leave it alone. You probably won’t be able to teach your children about every animal they might see before you go on your hike. But true learning happens when a child sees the animal, commits it’s features to memory, and then finds it in a field guide at a later time. A fun thing to do is to tell your child to give it a name, any name. Ask them, “Why did you give it that name?” This can create a nice dialogue and open up a real understanding of what they internalize during your experience.

Family Hike

Where are we?

Even if you are going on a little trail hike in a local park, check the map. An easy thing to do is to take a picture of the park map that is displayed at the trailhead with your phone. That way you have it for the duration of your hike. Take some time to get your bearings. You don’t necessarily have to memorize the map, but it is always better to first take 5 minutes to get a hold of where you are or where you are going. GPS units and cell phones can be unreliable.

Take some time to teach your child how to read a map. It can be a lot of fun. A great activity is to bring a clipboard and see if you and your child can make a map of your own on your hike. Then, compare it to the map you were given or saw at the trailhead. This activity can build a sense of ownership over a natural space and teach invaluable geographical skills to children.  

Interested in going on a multi-day hike on the Appalachian Trail? Check out the trail guide that can help you and your family map out a great two-, maybe three-day hike. What an incredible experience it could be for a summer section hike on the AT!

First Aid: Prepare for the Unexpected

98% of the time when you are out on an urban hike or a nature trail through Rock Creek Park, you won’t need any sort of emergency or first aid pack. But, for the 2% of the time that you do, you’ll be happy you brought one. Don’t go overboard. Just bring something that will help you out when you’re in a jam. Here is a great resource for knowing what to bring along for different situations from another great KidsHealth.org post.

But, if you really want, you can go all out with a NOLS wilderness first aid certification or an REI wilderness first aid class. These courses can be very interesting and beneficial. But, really, that’s just if you are interested or planning to take your child on a month-long Appalachian Trail hike or some other wilderness adventure.

Relax

If you were to ask me, “What’s the most important safety measure when taking children outside?” my answer would be, “Relax.” Well, I would probably give you more than just that. But, my point is don’t get yourself so worked up that you scare children away from being outdoors. Be prepared as an adult. You don’t necessarily have to involve the child in every step of your preparations. They don’t need to know that you have a plan and policy for each wild animal you may encounter. Those are adult matters. If you are prepared to the best of your knowledge, (...by reading this post and others) then you can spend more time enjoying nature with your child. Take the time to prepare in order to have the time to enjoy. That’s what it is all about.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Science, Nature, and Outdoor Education

Lucas Kelly

Written by Lucas Kelly

Lucas Kelly earned his bachelor’s degree in environmental science and policy at the University of Maryland and his MAT from the University of Maryland University College. Lucas started his teaching career at the Echo Hill Outdoor School and then became the director of the Voyagers’ Outdoor Program and science/math teacher at the Voyagers’ Community School in Eatontown, NJ. Lucas joined the Lowell School faculty in 2016.