Kenneth A. Hill, PhD
Training Officer (External)
Waverley Ground Search and Rescue
Nova Scotia, Canada
The Woodsproofing concept arose primarily out of concern for the survival of children who become lost, particularly those who defeat the efforts of search teams through mobility, and fail to take the simplest precautions against hypothermia. Through the program, members of the Woodsproofing Committee of Waverley Ground Search and Rescue hope,
- to provide a large number of children, especially younger children, with basic information about how they should react if they become lost;
- to provide parents and other adults with information about prevention; and,
- through exposure and interaction with children, encouraging their trust in members of ground search teams, who would no longer be regarded as “strangers”.
The term “woodsproofing” is a misnomer, as it suggests there is some assurance that children will actually use the information they receive from the program, and that the information, even if it is used, is guaranteed to save them in all possible situations.We can make no such guarantees.
We employ the term as a convenience, for communicating to the public (who are already familar with the term “streetproofing”), and because of its conventional usage to denote similar programs elsewhere.
The program we provide is aimed at teaching several basic principles to children (and their parents) that will help ground search teams find the most children in the shortest amount of time and with the least amount of discomfort to the lost child. Nevertheless, suggestions for a more accurate label are welcome.
Overview. As presently constituted, the Woodsproofing program is aimed primarily at boys and girls between five and ten years of age, and their parents.
Though the specifics of individual sessions may vary, the overall structure of the program is the same:
- children and their parents are shown the film entitled “Lost in the Woods” (see Appendix),
- parents and other adults are separated from the children, and the two groups are spoken to by team members who specialize in these respective tasks, and
- the groups are subsequently reunited for some less formal activity, such as a demonstration by the team’s dog handler, followed by informal interaction between team members and the audience.
Parent participation.Involvement of the parents in the Woodsproofing session is considered important for two reasons:
- it is felt that the concept of prevention would be more fruitfully discussed with the parents than their children, and
- the ability of the child to use woodsproofing skills may depend on how they believe the parent will respond to their being lost.
Regarding the latter point, a child who expects his parents to be angry may be reluctant to remain put and wait for searchers to find him; rather, he may fearfully thrash through the woods in the hope of finding his way out as soon as possible.
Consequently, during the woodsproofing session, parents are asked to clearly communicate the message to their child that they will not react punitively should the child become lost.
In addition, participation by the parents in the child’s woodsproofing should enhance the child’s involvement in the session and the perceived significance of the lessons being taught.
Some preparation is necessary before the session is to begin.
First, there should be one WGSR person in charge, who is responsible for scheduling the event, recruiting sufficient WGSR people to attend the session, bringing the film, projector, extra reel, extension cord, screen, and books, and generally overseeing the events of the session.
A minimum of two WGSR people are required to present a woodsproofing session, so long as the size of the group of children is small (about 15 or fewer). One person will address the children, the other will speak to the adults.
However, the session will be more successful if additional team members are also present, preferably dressed in orange coveralls, backpacks, and gear (e.g., radios). The sight of WGSR people in full search attire tends to facilitate interaction between team members and the audience, and provides the child with an opportunity to see what a seacher looks like, should they ever become lost.
Introduction and film presentation.
When ready to begin the session, the team member in charge should stand before the group and introduce him/herself to the audience. In a sentence or two, he or she will briefly describe the scheduled events, i.e., that a film will be presented, and that afterwards we would like to speak with the children and adults separately, because we have different things to talk to them about.
At that point, the children are asked to come to the front of the room and sit on the floor before the screen. No child over five should be allowed to stay back with his or her parent, if it can be avoided.
The film tends to build feelings of tension and parental concern; parents who are observed watching the film with their children typically spend considerable time consoling the child nonverbally, such as holding and patting.
We want to delay the release of this parental concern in order to maximize the parent’s motivation to cooperate with our suggestions about prevention (described below).
Post-film discussion: the children.
The children should be addressed by someone who feels comfortable with an audience of this age range and is able to establish rapport.
The speaker should either crouch or sit on a chair with the children huddled on the floor around him.
The children’s attention should be captured and maintained as much as possible, without becoming heavyhanded or “bossy.”
One useful approach is to insist (in a friendly way) that the children raise their hands when they want to answer a question (“just like in school”).
This also provides the advantage of calling on the more reticient, shyer children for their input as well (even the ones who don’t raise their hands), before answers can be blurted out by the more gregarious children.
The speaker can begin the session by introducing himself and any other WGSR people there.
The objective for this part of the discussion is to ensure, through repetition, that the children remember four basic points made in the film:
- to stay in an open place,
- to stay warm by buttoning up your coat,
- to cover your head, and
- to build a survival bed of leaves and tree boughs.
Additional points about not eating strange berries or hugging a tree are optional and up to the discretion of the speaker; however, it should be noted that the more one tries to teach the younger children under these circumstances the less they will remember.
After making the statement about raising hands, the speaker can ask the children, “What happened to Calvin?” (the boy in the film).
After the children answer (usually emphatically) that Calvin “got lost,” the speaker can ask how this happened.
The children typically respond with the fact that he was following a deer.
You can elaborate this with something like, “That’s right! He was following a deer and not paying attention to where he was going.” (Always reward the children’s responses; there are no “wrong” answers.)
It is best to emphasize throughout the discussion that Calvin reacted intelligently to his predicament. He did “all the right things,” because he was a “smart kid” (a comment one searcher actually makes in the film).
This will highlight the fact that he is someone to emulate and to learn from.
The speaker can ask, “What was the first ‘right thing’ that Calvin did, once he realized he was lost?”
The correct answer is that he stayed in an open place, rather than continuing to try to find his way out of the woods.
The second ‘right thing’ is that he buttoned up his jacket to stay warm; the third is that he covered his head with his hood; and the fourth is that he built a survival bed to provide further protection from the elements.
Calvin was scared, but he kept cool; he remembered all the things to do that he had been told about.
Repetition is necessary if the children are going to remember the four points under conditions of high stress and anxiety – that is, should they become lost themselves.
Each time an additional “right thing” is introduced, previous points should be repeated. Use the same wording each time, and get the children to recite along with you as you go through the list of “right things.”
Pretend you can’t remember them yourself, children will enjoy the game of reminding you what all the right things are.
Repeat the list until you’re sure they’ll remember it, then go through it once again. It’s better to err on the side of overkill.
At this point, you can change the focus of the discussion from the film to the children themselves.
Ask if any of them have ever been lost. Some hands may go up rather tentatively, and you might hear some tall tales about being lost in the woods under harrowing conditions much worse than Calvin’s.
Frequently, though, no one raises their hand.
Now ask if anyone has ever been lost in the shopping centre or the supermarket and you’ll get a more positive response.
Then ask those children what they did when they got lost. Almost always, they will answer that they told “someone who works there.”
Repeat this phrasing to the children. The point you want to get across is that, when you are lost, some strangers are safe to approach for help.
One hurdle for a successful Woodsproofing session is to overcome the typical warning not to speak to strangers, and certainly not to follow them anywhere.
The point of using the shopping centre example, which many children are familiar with, is that you can get around this hurdle by using an exception that the children are already aware of, rather than trying to introduce a new exception.
Thus, when a child is lost in the woods, search and rescue people are safe (despite the fact they are strangers) because “they work there” (in the woods, looking for lost people).
A third and final objective for the discussion with the children is to talk about how their parents will react if they should indeed happen to get lost in the woods.
Begin this discussion by asking the question, “How do you think your Mom and Dad will feel if you become lost, and you’re late for supper?”
Many children have difficulty answering this question, because the phrase “late for supper” suggests parental anger and punishment. Some will answer that their parents would be “sad,” and you should reward these answers enthusiastically.
Elaborate on this with phrases like “terribly worried,” or “scared to death,” emphasizing that anger would be the farthest thing from the parent’s mind.
Finally, add the statement that, “When (not ‘if’) you’re found, your Mom and Dad would be very happy to see you, and probably give you a big hug.”
Among children’s worst fears is abandonment by the parents, the withdrawal of love and concern.
For example, a not uncommon worry is that the parents will have moved away while the child is attending school, and not a few children have emitted, at one time or another, an internal sigh of relief to find the family car still parked in the driveway.
When a child is lost in the woods, this fear can be magnified to the dimensions of terror, making a panic reaction all the more likely.
You can confront this fear directly by asking the question, “If you got lost, would your parents wait a few days for you to come home, or what?”
You’ll receive some nervous laughter, because even young children realize that this fear is irrational.
Emphasize that, in fact, parents will know that their child is lost, that they will be very worried about them, and that they will send someone to look for them right away. That “someone,” of course, is us.
Post-film discussion: the parents.
The objective for the discussion with the children’s parents is prevention. There are two general areas to be addressed.
One area refers to practical steps that parents can take to prevent their child from wandering off in the woods and getting lost, and the second has to do with the child’s attitude.
Regarding the practical steps, suggest to the parents that they purchase some brightly colored forestry tape (“flagging”), available at many sporting goods stores and other retail outlets (e.g., Canadian Tire).
When the family goes camping, the parent can use the tape to mark off a clearly visible perimeter, beyond which the child is instructed not to travel without an adult.
Families who live near wooded areas can engage in a similar activity around their homes. As the child grows and becomes increasingly familiar with the area inside the tape, the perimeter can be extended.
A related activity, which should be recommended, is that the parent take the child for a walk (it could be the same time as the perimeter is being set up) and engage the child in building a survival bed.
The child should be allowed to pick the “best spot” (an open space), and to gather sufficient boughs and leaves to make the bed (advise the parents not to chop down any branches, as the child will not have this advantage should he ever need to make a survival bed).
The parent can pretend to “tuck” the child into his new bed. This will likely be an enjoyable activity and will help ensure that the child will remember this important step should they ever become lost.
This is a skills-oriented approach to prevention. An alternative approach, one which is found in many families who live near wooded areas, is a policy of avoidance.
That is, children are instructed (usually quite ominously) not to go into the woods at all.
This policy is comparable to telling children who live by the sea not to go near the water, for fear of drowning, rather than teaching them to swim.
Children who are kept out of the forest, through parental fears of their becoming lost, are being deprived of an educational experience and an aesthetically pleasing place to play.
What is worse, they are totally unprepared, both emotionally and practically, in the event that they should wander into the woods anyway, despite parental admonitions.
No parent realistically expects their child to mind them 100% of the time. However, parents whose children have received woodsproofing, and who live near wooded areas, should be less apprehensive about the consequences of their child straying beyond the perimeter.
Other ways that parents can prepare their children for the woods include always ensuring that the child has adequate protection from hypothermia. The point should be made that hypothermia kills many more people in fair but wet weather than in cold weather.
There are many types of compact windbreakers and plastic sheets that fit into pouches; these can easily be slipped into a pocket or a backpack. The low-budget version is a large, orange garbage bag, which provides an instant portable tent (the child can poke a hole to see out).
Children should also be provided with a whistle, hanging from a lanyard around the neck, with instructions to blow three times if they need help (and only then).
Children can also be provided with high-calorie foods, such as dried fruit or candy, a provision which few children will object to carrying.
Unfortunately, many children will likely consume these “emergency” supplies at their first opportunity.
As important as these skills and provisions are to the child’s survival, the most important thing a parent can do is to facilitate in their child the appropriate attitude toward being lost.
Recall that, coincidentally with the parental discussion, the children are being told that their parents will not be angry at them if they become lost and will not punish them when they’re found.
We would be irresponsible to assume that this will always be true, and to let it go at that. A major objective of the parental discussion is to ensure that the parents understand that, if they need someone to blame, it is the parents’ fault if the child gets lost – not the child’s.
Consequently, they should make sure that they communicate to their children the very points that we make to the children during the woodsproofing session:
- that they will not be angry at them if they become lost, and
- that they will send people to look for them right away.
Children who are persuaded of these statements are better prepared emotionally to control their panic and to follow the basic survival steps, especially regarding staying in one place.
In fact, parents should be instructed to communicate this message immediately upon rejoining their children after the discussion. Almost all parents will gladly comply with this request.
Problems to avoid.
Actually, if you remember to bring all the equipment, have sufficient manpower to run the session, and have good directions about how to find the location, there will be few problems of any consequence. However, one area that is sometimes problematic is dealing with a group of kids (usually boys) who have gotten out of control.
The first rule is never to allow yourself (or any other WGSR person) to be put in charge of controlling the children (either intentionally or by default). That is, always make sure there is at least one leader around who will stay in the vicinity of the children and will take the initiative in controlling them if they get out of hand.
Thus, when the parents and children separate, one or two of the group leaders could be asked to stay in the room with the children. It’s a good idea to mention this request to the group leader before the session begins.
On the other hand, if you find that unruly behaviour is a frequent problem during the children’s sessions, you might wonder whether the sessions are lasting too long, or even if your presentation of the discussion might be the problem.
Talking to young children, especially involving them in an extended conversation, is harder than it looks; you may be losing their interest after the first few minutes of the discussion. Try watching someone who seems to be good at it, then have them watch you leading a discussion, with the goal of making some constructive criticism.
The following is an outline of the central points discussed in this paper:
I. Discussion With the Children:
- Stay in an open place.
- Button up your coat to stay warm.
- Cover your head.
- Make a survival bed of leaves and tree boughs.
- “Mess up your yard” (leave clues for searchers).
- Searchers are “safe” strangers.
- Your parents will worry about you and send searchers right away.
- When you’re found your parents won’t punish you.
II. Discussion With the Parents:
- Parents are responsible for prevention – don’t blame the child.
- Establish perimeters around camp sites and homes near wooded areas.
- Practice making a survival bed with your child.
- Make sure your child understands that you won’t be angry if they become lost.
VHS Video or Book
“Lost in the Woods” SARBC, P.O. Box 187, Victoria, BC, V8W 2M6
Colleen Politano (author), LOST IN THE WOODS: CHILD SURVIVAL, Porthole Press, Ltd., 2082 Neptune Road, Sidney, BC V8L 3X9
The “Woodsproofing for Children” program was developed in the fall of 1986 by the Waverley team in response to the death of 9-year-old Andy Warburton.Since that time more than 50,000 children (really!) in Nova Scotia have received woodsproofing as described herein.
There is at least one documented case where a woodsproofed child had benefitted from this training, and several known cases where woodsproofed children had been found by family or neighbors in their “hasty searches” before calling the police.
We used to have to search for at least one or two children every year, sometimes more. Since the woodsproofing program began, 10 years ago, we’ve had only one search for a lost child in the targeted age group (knocking on wood).
Remember: “The best search is the one you don’t have to conduct.”
Kenneth Hill, Search Director, Waverley Ground Search and Rescue firstname.lastname@example.org