Give a seven year old a knife to carve with. At Trackers, we do this every day.
A thoughtful parent might say, “I have a good kid, and they always follow the rules. If they’re taught knife safety, there’s no way they’ll cut themselves. Right?”
I know the guidelines of knife safety well. I even wrote them. Guess what? I, and many other skilled adults, have accidentally cut ourselves when we let our awareness drop.
Like anything in life, “knife safety” is less about rigid rules and more about paying attention. You have to remain fully aware of your body position and level of control. Rules start you on the path to noticing important details. But the reality is that every outdoor skill requires a mindfulness few children get the opportunity to practice—especially in our modern educational settings.
At times, a child’s brain can get overwhelmed by asking their body to achieve a whole new level of coordination. If they end up “breaking a rule”, it’s not because they chose to be bad. It’s often because they lost track within the wave of many new things they needed to remember as their knife slices through a cottonwood branch.
There is an inherent risk to pushing these limits. Some might say we should never let kids push that edge with new skills. Yet growth requires testing limits through well calculated risk. So, we strike a balance. We engage in wild adventures such as climbing trees, swimming, and yes, using knives, so kids can grow up and develop the competencies that come with nature awareness.
If a kid breaks their wrist while stretching their own limits climbing a tree, that’s a significant learning experience—and, studies show that kids who sustain those types of injuries are less likely to be afraid of heights as adults. If they get cold because they refuse to wear their coat, they remember the next time the temperature drops. If they get bug bites, let them complain about it to the deer who live with it in the wild.
Children need risk. They also need competent, caring adults watching out for them. This is the mission of Trackers: to mitigate significant safety concerns while helping students push those edges. Trackers does not jump headlong into danger simply for adventure’s sake. Our actions are rooted in a profound awareness that weighs the opportunity for growth against any possible risk. Our responsibility entails asking children to do more, while setting firm boundaries around choices with potentially serious consequences.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but one of our jobs at Trackers is to actually make going outdoors slightly more boring. Ironically, that mitigation of risk often significantly limits things kids should be able to do with complete freedom.
At Trackers we have limits on climbing trees. We have limits on swimming and wading. And yes, we even have limits on how dirty you can get (and remain so). We have limits on nearly everything you can think of (remember, our safety manual is hundreds of pages long).
These limits let us walk up to the edge of learning, but never fall over the cliff.
In a world informed by catch phrases, educators and parents often claim they can keep a child safe 100% of the time. This sincere drive to build faith and trust with families forces camps and schools to become disingenuous in their communications.
I don’t want that for Trackers.
With all my heart, I want all parents to know that we work extremely hard to keep kids safe. We also challenge ourselves to respect the fundamental wild truths of learning and life.
There are times that, in a momentary flash, quicker than any teacher or even parent could catch, a child will choose to exceed the limits placed on them. It is then that they did something exceptionally normal, healthy, and awesome. They jumped over a log. They swung from a tree. They experimented with fire. Meanwhile, I sit there paranoid, gritting my teeth, yet also extremely proud—both as an educator of Trackers and as a parent.