Introducing a child to nature is a great learning experience! It satisfies their natural curiosity and, like all kids, everything is absolutely AMAZING!! But because of this, and kids being kids, they can be easily distracted and wonder off.
Ken Hill, a child psychologist and the world's foremost authority on lost person behavior, says you don't need a detailed personal history or psychological profile, you just need some basic information, their age and their outdoor activity, and you can calculate how far they're likely to travel and where you should start looking. "It is more important to realize that a known percentage of all lost persons are found within a one or two-mile radius than it is to know how they got there." Statistically, it turns out that no matter where you are in the world, lost people tend to behave in much the same way. Who you are determines how far you're likely to wander.
KIDS ONE TO SIX usually travel between 0.67 and 1.65 miles. The smallest ones, between one and three like Joshua Childers, have no concept of being lost. If they're separated from their parents, they have no ability to find their way, so they wander aimlessly and typically don't go very far. In fact, they're usually found sleeping.
KIDS THREE TO SIX are more mobile and they understand the idea of getting lost. They tend to take care of themselves better than older children and even adults. What tends to save them is their desire to be “comfortable.” If they’re thirsty, they drink from a stream. In bad weather, they sleep in caves or hollows. But they are "stranger resistant," meaning they won't respond to searchers.
KIDS SEVEN TO TWELVE will run when they're lost. The distance is usually between 0.92 and 1.70 miles. They're often afraid of punishment and won't answer searchers until they're cold and hungry. They have the same fears as adults, just more acute. Generally, children of school age and younger may have considerable difficulty constructing useful mental maps of their environments.
Parents should take some solace in knowing that, statistically, children up to 6 years old actually have the highest survival rate, this is because they tend to react instinctively to the world they see around them; if they're thirsty, they drink from a stream, if they're tired, they rest on a log, if they're sleepy, they curl-up in a small cave and so on, but always with the intent to be comfortable. It's that instinct to be comfortable that helps them survive. On the other hand, children 6 to 12 have the lowest survival rate, that's because they tend to ignore their instincts and they haven't yet learned enough to act with reason or experience. Regardless, statistics and local rescue efforts are little comfort when your kid is missing!
Still, kids are NOT accident-proof! If there's a way for them to get into trouble, they'll find it! It's what they do, that’s their job!! So, start with precautions and the essentials; Erect barriers to limit their movement and give them rules to abide by including never go ANYWHERE without you or your consent. Next, if you have a pool or you are near a body of water (or you want to take them sailing, etc.), you should take them to "drown-proofing classes", that begins with swimming lessons and safety gear (a kid-sized PFD). If you live in/near a wilderness area, or you want to go camping/hiking with them, etc., you should ALWAYS teach your child the basics of staying out of wilderness trouble and give them a few "survival" items.
Keep in mind, very small children, and pets, may well seem like easy prey to a wild animal (even in wilderness parks), so if they are very young, you may want to postpone your wilderness introduction or remain close and vigilant. If they are old enough, can remember and follow instructions, and you know you will be near, give them their own little pack. Then;
1. Bright clothes, mainly from the waist up including a hat, will make them easy/easier to spot day or night (including reflective trim). Even if they accidentally lose a hat or glove, it may create a sign that can be more easily spotted by a search team (of course, be sure it is NOT cotton and can be layered). The child should be encouraged to not simply remove the outer layers of clothing if they get hot, but tie them around the waist, or better yet, put them into their little pack so if they DO get lost, they will have it after nightfall.
2. A whistle is an absolute MUST!!! (Even for adults). It makes finding people SO much easier and it’s not only less stressful on the mind, it easier on the vocal chords. A system of whistles can even be taught, for example: 1 whistle = a call, 2 whistles = an answer, 3 whistles = help/come here.
3. A bivy is a handy shelter from wind and possibly rain. I do NOT recommend a “survival blanket” for anyone! Unless it’s to be used as a tarp, otherwise they are completely USELESS! Of course, the child should be instructed on proper use so they don’t suffocate themselves if it’s made of Mylar.
4. A small flashlight can be a GREAT comfort to those not used to being in wilderness, away from civilization, especially in deep forest or canyon areas, where not even sunlight or even moonlight can reach. First-timers are always shocked at just how DARK night can be!
5. & 6. A bottle of water is good for kids to have to keep them hydrated, along with a few food bars, can be a comfort. In stressful situations, doing something familiar in unfamiliar situations can be a coping method.
Later, and if they still have an interest, you can start adding to their very own core gear including survival kits. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, statistically people are usually rescued in 10 to 24 hours after being reported, but almost always within 48 to 72 hours (only less than 1% take longer than a week!).
As with ANY aspect of a child's life, a parent's influence can be a huge advantage throughout the child's life, this INCLUDES wilderness survival! Take for example, the case histories of Cindy and Jena Wortman; they and their brother, were taught how to survive in Alaska since they were children by their father. As teens, their boat sank, they made it to shore, and their father and brother went for help, leaving the girls alone for what was to be a few hours. 13 days later, with no food and in freezing temperatures, the girls were found alive and in good spirits!
Or Juliane Koepcke; taught to survive in the jungle since she was a child in the Peruvian Amazon, she and her mother were flying to be with her father when the plane was stuck by lightning and broke apart. Juliane survived a 10,000-foot fall and 11 days in the jungle getting to safety. And Todd Orr; he and his brother were taught about the animals and forests since childhood, Todd grew to be a forester in bear country. One day, Todd was attacked the same bear, TWICE, and survived due to his calm and mindful personality thanks to his father's childhood training and ESPECIALLY his father's influence.
To begin training, nature walks into wilderness parks in the frontcountry are great! There are generally plenty of people here-n-there and trails are easy to follow. Many wilderness parks have well maintained campsites, and even restrooms and emergency phones so it's easy to make it an adventurous day. The basics like following streams to safety are easy lessons, but the MOST important lesson is always learning to STAY PUT! (And blow the whistle). Typically, a child's survival ordeal begins with getting lost (When YOU don't know where you are) or at least going missing (When OTHERS don't know where you are).
Of course, panic is the most typical obstacle anyone may face in their ordeal; being all alone in a mysterious place with big trees or big rocks and lots of strange noises, especially at night! So just sitting at random locations with the child, both on and off trail, can be a good start. Later, perhaps leaving the child for increasing durations then sending the child to a point just beyond their sight (In a safe area, of course) can be tried, again, for longer periods of time, the lesson, always to stay put!
Making it a game is a good way to teach without teaching. Try having the child count how many different birds they hear, how many insects they see, how many things they can make, and so on. The idea is to get the child familiar with the sights, sounds and resources of the wilderness. Later, they can make basic beds with grass, leaves or whatever's at hand. More advanced children may even try a simple shelter, but each time teaching them there's nothing to be scared of.
It's not unusual for people, and young children, to run from search dogs believing they are wolves or from rescuers with flashlights believing they are one-eyed monsters. Even grown adults have been known to run away from, and even SHOOT at, rescue teams because they're scared! But having a "safe word" is always a good practice since children MAY consider SAR personnel as "bad" or "dangerous" strangers and hide from them.