How to Teach Situational Awareness to Children – Part 1, by T.Y.

(Part 1 of 5)

Until I was four years old my family lived in the “old house.” It was a wooden, four-room cabin overlooking a mountain stream. My grandfather built the cabin in the 1940s. When we wanted a drink of water we walked to our spring, filled a bucket and toted it home. If grandma needed hot water she had to start a fire first.

While my sister and I played outside in the dirt, grandma cleaned clothes on a washboard in the creek and wrung them dry. She let us “help” when she churned butter or shucked corn, then taught us to start a fire for the wood stove while she killed a chicken for dinner. After dinner we “got to” feed the pigs, harvest the garden and stack the jars of food on the shelf that grandma canned. For fun, I would sit on the porch and practice knife skills by whittling away on a piece of hickory.

As it turns out, my childhood was the original “prep school”—the one that prepared me for life.

By contrast, most of today’s parents (and even their parents) didn’t grow up learning those skills. Instead, they were born into a life of dependence on modern conveniences. As a result, today’s children are only taught modern survival skills—such as flipping a switch that turns on lights and turning on a faucet to get drinking water.

Today’s children can navigate with technology, but not with a paper road map. They can find Wi-Fi in any city, but ask them to purify water from any source and they can’t. They can use a microwave, but they can’t build a fire.

But, what skills do today’s children have to prepare them to face the all-too-common threats of violence and disasters we see on the news? For that matter, what skills and resources do their parents have?

Beyond the basic survival skills that today’s society is failing to pass down to our children, our world has many more violent threats than it did a few generations ago. In addition to common natural disasters, our society is becoming increasingly and indiscriminately violent. Unspeakable tragedies include abductions, sexual assaults, and deadly shootings at schools, from kindergartens to universities.

We’re shocked when we see headlines of violence where any one of us, or our children, may have been present. Headlines such as:

  • Bombing at the Boston Marathon.
  • Sniper Massacre: 59 Killed at Las Vegas Concert.
  • Gunman kills 26, Including 20 Schoolchildren in Connecticut.
  • Thirteen Dead, 29 Injured at Fort Hood Shooting.
  • 21 Die in Stampede of 1,500 at Chicago Nightclub.
  • Gunman shoots 70, Kills 12 at Batman Movie.
  • Virginia Tech School Shooting Leaves 33 Dead.
  • Nine Killed at Church in Charleston, SC.

We keep glued to the news reports and cringe when we contemplate the truly horrific nature of the tragedy. But do we change our behavior or do anything to prepare ourselves for such an event? Do we take our children aside and teach them skills that could save their lives?

For most people, the answer is no. We turn our heads and remain inactive. The unfortunate truth is that so many deadly life-altering tragedies surround us that we seem, ironically, unaware of them.

These events somehow seem less real when absorbed through television and news reports—more like something from a movie than real, human suffering. Soon, the horrific images fade, normalcy bias takes over and we get on with our own lives.

But the fact is that small and large-scale disasters and acts of violence happen all the time, every day, and it can happen to you. It can happen to your children. This article is about helping you to empower your children with the crucial skills they need to survive and thrive.

I believe the best way to teach preparation is to model it, which is what our family tries to do every day for our daughter. How? We often use playful games to teach her situational awareness because, unlike most adults, children stay in a constant state of learning just by being kids. By nature, skill-building is in their bones. We teach them with everything we do—even if we think we are doing nothing.

But, what do our children learn from us when we disregard the news story about a child abduction two states away? Perhaps we’re inadvertently teaching them that it isn’t anything to worry about—that it can’t happen to them. Or maybe they learn that no one will care if they are abducted (since we show no apparent concern to the news event), allowing fear and dread to penetrate their psyche rather than situational awareness and survival skills.

However, if we use these teaching moments to model for our children, they can grasp a more valuable lesson—one that could save their lives. So why don’t most parents do that?

One reason is because we don’t want to scare them. But, as you’ll learn in this five-part series, you can teach preparedness and survival skills in a playful way. When you do, it removes the fear factor and allows you to assess their progress as they “play.” After all, play is nature’s way of assuring that young mammals, including young humans, will practice and become good at the skills they need to survive and thrive in their environments. In his excellent book, Free to Learn, author and developmental psychologist Peter Gray says that:

            “Play is activity for its own sake, not activity aimed at some serious goal such as food, money, gold stars or praise. When we offer such rewards to children who are playing, we turn their play into something that is no longer play. Because play is activity done for its own sake rather than for some conscious end, people often see play as frivolous, or trivial. But here is the deliciously paradoxical point: Play’s educational power lies in its triviality.”

In other words, play is something that all children want to do. Play is nature’s way of teaching them. As parents, we have an opportunity to make choices that guide our children’s playtime in a manner that ensures they learn critical skills necessary to be prepared for life. It’s our responsibility to orchestrate the balancing act of allowing children to play while ensuring the skills they practice are the survival skills we want them to become proficient in.

There’s an appropriate message for children regardless of their age, and an appropriate way to deliver the message. You’re the parent—you know best, but by improving your own survival mindset you will model and teach them theirs just as surely as you taught them how to look both ways before crossing a street. But preparedness play should be fun, never scary.

For example, you could teach a preschooler the skills to plan a survival bag simply by making up a game. Tell them to pretend they can’t take the bus (or car) home from school (or playgroup) and you get to walk. Let them help pack the backpack. Many young children will no doubt add life-sustaining plastic dinosaurs and goldfish crackers, but this gives you an opportunity to show them a map, discuss sun, shade, and rain, as well as food and water.

On your pretend journey, which could be from the pretend school in your garden shed back to the child’s bedroom, let them decide if the sun is blazing hot or if you’re trapped in a sudden downpour. They make the rules of play; you simply play with them and practice an important skill, such as taking shelter, making a play tent and so on.

As your children age, you can transition this to a real-life example by helping them pack important survival gear into their school backpacks, such as a poncho, survival whistle, extra water or food, and a list of important contact data. The message gets modified as your children mature until you have developed a teenager who independently is prepared when she leaves the house.

And it all starts with play.

There are countless games you can play with young and older children, and later in this series, I’ll share a dozen games to get you going. As they develop their survival skills and broaden their thinking, you can share with your children why you bought the extra cans of tuna and why you’re showing them how to filter water. Rather than being afraid, the light will go off and your kids will “get it,” just as I did when grandma showed me.

As your children mature, you can build on the skills they’ve learned so they have a fighting chance in case they have to face an emergency on their own. This, of course, is our end goal—to prepare our children for life.

(To be continued in Part 2.)


  1. This is timely for me. We had a young black bear in our backyard yesterday morning. It was the first one we’ve seen since moving in to this house six years ago. The grandkids had been here just a few days earlier playing in the woods. I was thinking i need to teach them to be aware of their surroundings without freaking them out.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    1. Wormlady, these are lucky kids.

      T.Y. poses some intriguing challenges in the first few paragraphs.

      To wit: By contrast, most of today’s parents (and even their parents) didn’t grow up learning those skills. Instead, they were born into a life of dependence on modern conveniences. As a result, today’s children are only taught modern survival skills—such as flipping a switch that turns on lights and turning on a faucet to get drinking water.

      Today’s children can navigate with technology, but not with a paper road map. They can find Wi-Fi in any city, but ask them to purify water from any source and they can’t. They can use a microwave, but they can’t build a fire.

      But, what skills do today’s children have to prepare them to face the all-too-common threats of violence and disasters we see on the news? For that matter, what skills and resources do their parents have?

      I’ll be sending this to the youngsters and their parents in my life. At the very least, we have a conversation. Perhaps, I find out who I can count on in rough times.

      Carry on in grace

  2. While watching a video of the KY protest shooting a few days ago, I noticed how disciplined the young protesters were, they all dropped to the ground and got behind hard cover. This was not normal for people their age and indicates some kind of training that they retained. They appeared to be college kids.

    There is some environmental training that goes on, the kids in urban areas with high crime rates seem to know how to duck and cover, and to immediately leave the area. A lot of times the police arrive to only find those killed or wounded, but none of the crowd that was there before the shooting. A kid from a decent neighborhood is not going to get that kind of training…

    A great quote from the Late Col. Jeff Cooper
    Jim’s Quote of the Day: July 14, 2007

  3. It is a very positive step forward if you can teach your children to actually ‘see’ what’s around them: the cottontail by the side of the road on a bike ride, the butterfly of amazing beauty on a wall, that is almost invisible( and point out that that is it’s protection), the cat stalking a mouse(how would you like to be that mouse?), the orange light and wind preceding a hail storm, the pan handler claiming need who wears new Nikes and has a smart phone, the person who walks out of the store without paying. These are things we take for granted but kids can and will just gloss over. Being taught to actually see what is around you, in detail, is a very valuable skill and it takes work.

  4. Thanks for this article, with my first child due to arrive within a month there are some really good points made, and ones that I will be keeping in mind.

  5. Since firearms are a thing around our house, I introduced our four girls to the tender mercies of a preeminent LE firearms instructor at the age of 14. During the classroom portion of the courses, they become familiar with risk assessment. Or more specifically, John Farnam’s risk assessment. “Your chances of being attacked today is either 100%, while it is happening to YOU, or….zero, for the time being.” Insert your favorite disaster in place of “attacked”.
    Weeks after one of their courses, a woman of significant stature fell to her death from a roller coaster at an amusement park in Texas. The story was unfolding on our kitchen TV as we ate breakfast. I posed a question as a pop quiz to my 15 year old as she finished her meal, “what were the chances of that poor woman falling out of that roller coaster yesterday?” The answer came instantly: “100%!”
    The author frames up the lack of practical skills our generation has perfectly. My mother-in-law routinely made soap in her younger days, and knew quite well how to do it. I don’t know how, but it seems to me that either way, ingredients are necessary to perform this mundane chore. So rather than learn the skill, I just store the ingredients in their finished form….soap. Lots, and LOTS of soap. Every trip to Costco sees a bulk package of bar or liquid soap plop into the basket. After a while, one has a formidable stash of this important commodity. Go and do likewise for everything else.
    The skillset of situational awareness is something to develop and maintain at all ages. Especially now.

  6. For example, Hide and Go Seek teaches children the best places to hide from pursuers. In today’s world it’s just a game, but back when there could be a raid on the village it was much more practical.

    1. Absolutely. When as a young boy, I hid from a couple of “Bad Guys” in an abandoned piece of duct work along some railroad tracks. They came within a few feet of me and never knew I was there. Hiding is often a better option than running. Oh… and it can be fun to practice. 🙂

  7. Thank you, TY! An excellent article and a very important topic as we consider how best to prepare the youngsters of today who will be the adults of the future. We’re looking forward to the next installments!

  8. On a larger note, we should remember that a child is a mental sponge ready to soak up whatever the adults around them are teaching – either by their words or their actions. Too many children today are not being taught by their parents but depend on games and videos to keep them occupied throughout the day. If you ask the average parent about their children’s education they often tell you it is the job of the school. But God’s Word tells us numerous times that the parents bear the responsibility of “training up a child in the way he should go”. Many young adults today act and think they way they do because their parents didn’t take time to teach them, thus allowing society to fill in the void.

  9. Thanks for the feedback everyone. I should apologize for this being a 5-part article…I took a lot of time to shorten it from what it was, but I think you’ll find it helpful if you have children.

  10. TY, please. Don’t apologize for it being a 5 part article. That gives us inspriation for the next 5 days . It was a very well written article .i was trying to think of some creative ways to make this subject matter a fun excerise, for my six grand children and you lit the spark ! Thank you.

  11. My parents taught us critical thinking, but never labeled it as such. Our kids have some sense but one is not really diligent.

    I’m retired and after being in the Army I picked up some skills that have stayed with me but………
    I’ve been complacent about everything, leading a middle class life until 9/11. That’s when I woke up and have been trying to view the world in a proper light……nothing is guaranteed.

    Great start and looking forward to reading the next installment. God bless!

  12. While your point regarding child rearing is well-taken, the FBI statistics do not bear out your assertion that there are more threats than ever before. Violent crime including murders have been declining to levels consistent with per capita rates that were experienced in 1963 for violent crime as a whole and in 1973 for murder. Violent crime rates per capita peaked in the early 1990’s and have been trending down ever since.

    1. This is an interesting point although I would suggest that not all dangerous conditions or actualized crimes can be counted or measured in the same ways. Additionally, the nature of the dangers changes across time and as the result of other adjustments — judicial, political, economic, sociological, socio-cultural, etc. It’s something to think about.

      1. Absolutely, both previous replies are good points. However, it seems to me that the media presents a picture that shows the world to be worse than it is. I’m sure it depends on where you live. But the sensational narrative that Is pushed is delivered for one of two reasons: either to drive more “clicks” in order to drive advertising, or there is an actual agenda to sew fear and spread division. Unfortunately, I feel like it’s the latter.

  13. Children are much more intelligent and intuitive than most of us give them credit for. I have 15 grandchildren and the little ones always seem to amaze me on most all fronts. It is true that they may not have yet developed the way to express exactly what is brewing in those little minds but you know when they have ‘got it’ by that light in their eyes.
    It is true we don’t want to ‘scare them’ but if children know they are loved and protected in your presence they can take a lot more than we may assume. Some times ‘fear’ is a very positive influence. The lady speaking of her grandchildren and the black bear is an example. I would much rather have the very young ones scared to death of a black bear than to be naively curious. They can grow away from irrational fear as they grow older but they have to grow older first.

    1. Most young children (under 9 or 10) enjoy learning until school takes the joy out of it. At school children are forced to read and take tests on those library books until they learn to hate reading. Math is fun until we assign too many problems and drill. Science and learning about animals and nature is fun until we drill on too many high stakes test objectives. Parents sometimes feel it is the school’s job to teach their children, and it is, but parents need to have their own agenda for teaching their children with life events. We all need to rethink whose job it is to teach our children depending on what you want them to learn. Our children spend far too much time on their phones and with silly apps and need to read as a family at home for a few minutes everyday. Every family member who is old enough to read could read a chapter or listen to the words as an older family member reads good nonfiction or fiction books. Any librarian or elementary teacher could provide a list of good, family oriented books. Children love and crave time spent with their parents and brothers and sisters. Turn off the tv, take up the phones, and spend a few minutes reading together as a family after dinner or on weekends. Reading needs to be a fun activity not as a dreaded school assignment. Children can comfortably understand a book that is several years above their independent reading level. Discuss what happens in the book, good or poor decisions, and turn the time together into a loving, family, quiet time before bed instead of rushing and running around and then trying to get them in bed in time. Yes, I had children, worked full time, did work assignments at home, and took graduate school classes that required much preparation and assignments. I only wish we had spent more quiet family time reading. Reading a bible story at night and praying together as a family is far more important than anything else you have to do. Years later those are the good times that children and parents remember, not rushing around to a sports game or practice 5 nights a week or how many movies or tv shows watched. I cringe every time I hear someone say they don’t have time to read to their children and know that they will one day wish they had taken the time to do those things.

  14. My family has a code phrase that means “shut up, pay attention, and do what I say RIGHT NOW without questions or hesitating.” There is nothing alarming about the phrase but it is a bit nonsensical and is not anything you would ever say casually. The kids (now 11 and 9) know they can ask questions afterward, and that I’ll NEVER use the phrase unless it’s really serious. I don’t “practice” or “drill”, but we remind them before any family outing.

    I’ve had to use it once, at the fair, when suddenly 6 cops started a felony arrest about 100 feet in front of me, in the crowd. As my wife and I started to fade back and retreat toward cover keeping the kids behind us, the kids wanted to see what we were looking at, and kept trying to get in front of me. There wasn’t any activity to justify doing anything more than act cautiously, and not continue our approach, but there was LOTS of potential for things to go drastically wrong quickly.

    I used the phrase and they immediately got behind me and stayed there.

    The arrest went smoothly and they walked the guy out, and we continued with our day. My wife and I were both stunned that NO ONE ELSE seemed to even see the arrest, and most just continued idly walking toward a very tense situation (6 cops surrounding the HUGE guy, hands on weapons, bodies ‘bladed’ toward him). People wandered past at arms length from the officers and the guy without a care.

    Once everything was clear, I explained to the kids what had happened, and why we stopped and why I wanted them behind us and headed for an exit to the ‘backstage’ area.

    For other situational awareness, when we’re out driving, I point out the homeless, drug addicts, and beggars, and draw their attention to things like clean shoes, and pressed pants. We also pay attention to which ones are regulars and which are new.

    When we’re out in stores or restaurants, we sometimes play “count the cameras” so they get in the habit of looking around.

    Since they were babies we practice getting in the car. The most likely place for a woman to be attacked by strangers is while loading into the car. The kids know to get in and sit down and close the door. They know not to mess around, and they know the reason why. They are a lot more willing to behave if they know WHY they need to at some times more than others.

    Lately, we’ve started with bow and arrows, talking about range safety, muzzle discipline, the ‘rules’, etc so that we can transition to air guns and soon after to real firearms.

    There are a lot of learned behaviors you can instill, always spotting the exits, sitting so you can see the door, looking THROUGH the door to see what you’re walking into, keeping your head up and your devices in your pocket when moving in crowds or the parking lot, how to move quickly through a crowd (look for the openings, and where they’ll be when you get there), run away from danger and toward safety, etc…

    You can add a bit at a time, layering on more and more as they adopt the previous behavior. It’s a lot to do all at once if you don’t start early.


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