play outdoors safely

Don’t be Afraid of the Woods! Play Outdoors Safely

The benefits of unstructured play in nature are well documented. Summer is a great time to explore the woods, but many parents may be afraid to let their kids play outdoors because of real or perceived danger.

There are certainly some things to look out for in the woods, but making your kids aware of them is a good step toward safe, healthy play.

Here are some ideas for how to prepare your kids to play safely in wooded or more remote areas.


Encourage a Sense of Wonder

First, encourage your children to appreciate and enjoy nature. Even if you, yourself, harbor uneasiness about certain plants and animals, let your children discover things. When they become interested in the amazing diversity of nature, you can learn together which things are harmless… and which merit caution. Remember that even a creature that bites or stings does so for defense. Respect its boundaries, but appreciate how cool it is, too. Generally, nature doesn’t harm you if you don’t harm it.


Dispel Myths

Many common plants and animals earn a bad reputation thanks to fairy tales and urban legends. Here are just a few:

  • Myth: Daddy longlegs (also called harvestmen) are poisonous/venomous. They are harmless.
  • Myth: A constrictor snake will constrict around you to strangle you or cut off circulation. Constrictors do suffocate their prey, but you and your children are probably too large for the snake to see you as prey.
  • Myth: All mosquitos carry disease. Some do, but your chances of acquiring a blood-borne disease this way are small. Learn about any warnings specific to your area, but do not assume all bites lead to illness.


Learn Your Poisonous Plants

Make sure your children understand that they should never eat anything they find in the woods. Mushrooms, nuts, wild berries, and plants can look a lot like the ones kids see at the store, but many are not safe to eat. An exception might be if you participate in a hike led by a qualified naturalist at a park or nature center.

Also, teach kids to recognize plants that can cause an allergic reaction when touched. The most common examples include:

  • Poison Ivy – This plant has rounded, single-point leaves that grow in clusters of three. Poison ivy can grow as a climbing vine, a low spreading vine, or a shrub. It’s common throughout the  U.S., primarily in the Eastern States.
  • Poison Oak – This plant also features leaves in clusters of three, although sometimes there can be up to seven leaves in each cluster. The leaves on this plant are shaped just like oak leaves, with rounded tips
  • Poison Sumac – This plant only grows in wooded, swampy areas such as those found in Florida and the southeast or in the northern states. The plant has long, woody stems with 7-13 slim, pointed leaves on each.

Check out this summary for more details on these plants. Or, search images on Google to get a better feel for what each plant looks like.


Teach Respect for Animals

One of the things kids look forward to most when they play outdoors is encountering animals. Learn which ones they should avoid.

Snakes generally won’t bother you as long as you don’t startle them. Dangerous encounters with snakes usually happen when someone stumbles upon one accidentally. This helpful guide includes good tips for avoiding snakes, including avoiding high grasses and thick brush where you can’t see the ground. If you do see one, and it’s non-venomous, go ahead and watch it without touching. 

The vast majority of snake species, especially in North America, are non-venomous. Learn whether there are venomous snakes in your area (here’s a handy list by state), and discuss these snakes with your kids.

Let your kids know that snakes like to hide in dark areas such as hollow logs, so they shouldn’t stick their hands anywhere they can’t fully see. Remember that snakes can climb trees and like to sunbathe during the day.

Depending on where you live, there may also be other dangerous predators to watch out for, such as mountain lions, bobcats, bears, wolves, alligators. Look up the specific steps you should take to avoid these animals and talk about them with your kids.


Avoid Insect and Spider Bites

Ticks love wooded and grassy areas and can transmit diseases, including Lyme disease. The CDC recommends that when in wooded or grassy areas, you stay in the middle of the trails, treat your clothes with permethrin and use a 20% DEET bug spray on any exposed skin. You should also check for ticks on your clothes and on your body once you come indoors and take a shower. Also, check out this post for natural bug deterrents.

There are also some venomous spiders here in the U.S., although they’re not very common. Like snakes, spiders prefer to be left alone and only try to bite when they’re surprised or threatened, which is another great reason to let your kids should know they should never stick their hand into a dark or hollow area in the woods. (It’s also a great idea to make sure any shoes that have been left outside are spider-free before you put them on.)

Finally, if your children have allergies (for example, to bees) make sure they know what to do if they get stung. Bee stings can happen as easily on your front porch as in the woods, so you’ve probably already talked about this as a family.


What to Take

Encourage kids to wear a hat or other head covering. Require close-toed shoes with good traction. If they plan to stay out longer than an hour or if it’s a hot day, have them carry water. They might want a bandana or old rag tucked into a pants pocket in case they need to wipe their hands. Some kids have fun testing out tools like compasses, binoculars, or magnifying glasses, but these aren’t necessary to enjoy the woods!


Emphasize What’s Safe

Despite the fact that we just listed a bunch of threats, it’s generally safe to play outdoors, even in the woods.  You can assure your kids that although there are some animals and plants to avoid, a vast majority of them are safe. It’s okay to pick up slugs and snails, daddy longlegs, ladybugs, and many other invertebrates. Sit on a fallen tree or dig in the ground with a stick. Splash in a stream and turn over rocks.

Just learn what lives in your area and how to co-exist with nature. A local park or nature center might offer resources to help.

Have fun and enjoy nature with your family this summer!


PHOTO: Leah Kelley / CC0 Public Domain

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