Outdoor Risk Examination
and Letter of Invitation
From Chelsea Eerkes
Director and Nature Guide
Discovery Wilderness School
I find huge value in time spent outside with my five daughters. Their imaginations run wild, they get tons of exercise, cooperate better, are sick less often, and sleep great at night! As we learn together about plants, trees, and animals, we develop a sense of wonder for the complexity of different ecosystems. Our family began foraging for wild edibles a few years ago. As we experience nature in this intimate way, collecting, preparing and eating wild foods, we have a deepened connection to the earth and our creator, who ingeniously designed it all to work together so well.
I am also a protective mamma-bear to my girls. I want them to be loved and mentored by adults with similar values to myself. I long for my daughters to develop friendships with peers that are a positive influence in their lives. I also need to know that when they are in the care of someone else, they will be safe. One of my daughters has a life-threatening allergy to bee venom. If I leave her in someone else’s care, they must understand the importance of a timely epipen injection if she were to be stung by a bee.
There are inherent risks associated with being outside. Most of those risks, when examined closely are very minimal. I will discuss those risks below in greater detail below.
“An indoor childhood does reduce some dangers to children; but other risks are heightened, including risks to physical and psychological health, risk to children’s concept and perception of community, risk to self-confidence and the ability to discern true danger.”
-Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods
Spiders—there are two potentially harmful spiders in Michigan. The Brown Recluse Spider is not indigenous to Michigan, can’t live below 40° F, and therefore are extremely rare. They may have come to Michigan through transport vehicles and may live in places like warehouses. They are nocturnal, and non-aggressive; they only bite if threatened. These spiders are yellow-tan to dark brown with a violin-shaped marking behind their eyes. Black Widow Spiders are slightly more common—found among wood piles, mostly in the Western UP, but there are a few in West Michigan as well. They are black and shiny with a large abdomen. Females have a red hourglass-shaped spot on the underside of their abdomen. Both of these spider bites are painful (like a bee-sting) and do require medical attention. With proper treatment, these spider bites heal just fine. All spiders have venom for eating their prey, and that is what they want to use it for. A spider is not going to simply bite something that is not food if it is not threatened. Spider bites are not common. We are now realizing around 40 different conditions are commonly misdiagnosed as spider bites by healthcare professionals (78% of spider bite diagnoses were actually things like MRSA and skin ulsters in this study).
Bees, wasps and hornets—the best thing to do is calmly walk away from the nuisance. Screaming and swatting make them more aggressive, so children are taught the proper way to handle a bee situation. If nests are found in any of our outdoor areas, they will be properly removed right away. Yes, a bee sting is painful. But unless your child has a severe allergy, these are not life-threatening. Yet, my daughter has a life-threatening allergy to bee venom, so I am always prepared to give an epipen injection at a moment’s notice.
Ticks and mosquitoes—depending on the year, these critters are sometimes around. The dates of our fall and spring semesters are not common times for ticks to be out at all, so this is hardly a concern. In class, we take precautions not to enter into heavy-tick areas (tall grasses) during tick season. Personally, over the summer months while exploring outside I have found ticks on myself several times, but never on my children. We always have bug spray and dress in smart ways (long pants and sleeves, tall socks and boots, oaki rain suits if bugs are very heavy—they can’t bite through the suits). There are several types of ticks, most of them do not carry Lyme disease. After arriving on your skin, the tick that can spread Lyme disease usually takes 24 hours before feeding begins, and 36 hours before it might infect you. Awareness of ticks, checking for them, and pulling them off if found, prevents most problems associated with them. That being said, ticks gross me out, and my daughters enjoy smashing them between rocks. :)
Snakes—Michigan has only ONE venomous snake—the Massasauga Rattlesnake. These are rarely seen by most people, as they are rare and tend to avoid confrontation, but will bite if threatened. By teaching children to treat all animals with respect, I don’t expect that a child would ever be bitten by a snake—especially the one rare venomous snake found in Michigan. There are several non-venomous, “tough guy” snakes that pose absolutely no threat to humans, but like to make you think otherwise. These include the Eastern Hognose and Northern Water Snakes. The most common snakes we run into include the Eastern Garter Snake, Brown Snake, and Northern Red-Bellied Snake. These are all quite docile and enjoy being held by warm, gentle hands. Sometimes, when scared, they will release an odorous liquid, which smells bad but is harmless.
Handling animals—so much learning happens as a child is taught proper care and respect for tiny creatures as s/he holds them. Insects, frogs, turtles, snakes… the minimal risk is to the animal from lotions or bug repellants on our hands. Before holding amphibians, children are taught to wet their hands to protect the animal’s absorbent skin. Some baby turtles can carry salmonella as a defense from predators. So, hand washing after touching any animal is key!
Scat! Sticks are great tools for investigating and identifying animal scat. We completely avoid raccoon scat because it can sometimes carry a nasty worm.
Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac—many people are allergic to the oils on the leaves and vines of these plants. We are always on the lookout, so we can properly teach identification and avoidance to children. There are several poison ivy mimics around, and we point out the differences between these plants. Other plants to be aware of that we come across are stinging nettle (which is actually edible and very healthy if harvested the right way!), wild parsnip, and hogweed.
Sticks—Sticks need space! Sticks are one of my children’s favorite toys (along with cardboard boxes and mud). Children do need to be aware of those around them when playing with, or moving sticks/logs.
Rain and Snow— when dressed accordingly, these are some of our best days in nature.
Storms, Wind, Very Cold—see our policy on Extreme Weather Days here. Basically, we'll be outside as long as we're safe. We have the option to bring our nature study indoors if the conditions change or students become too cold/wet to continue outside. Most days we will be outside for the full 4-hour class. Other days we will start outside and come in when necessary.
Heights—Climbing, jumping, balancing, hanging
Our teachers model the risk-assessment process with children through “think-alouds.” We use specific wording to get children to think about their direct actions. We might say, “Hmm… I wonder how high I should climb so that I know I can get down safely? I like to move my feet around to feel for branches as I come down. I need to make sure there are no other children around before I jump from this stump. If I use both my hands and feet to crawl across this log, I may have better balance…” This allows children to choose appropriate risks. It’s amazing what kids can figure out for themselves when an adult isn’t constantly shouting “be careful!” at them. But, when we see a child that is taking too great a risk, we are quick to step in and prevent injury.
Elements—steep banks, water, fire
For high-risk activities, we prepare students beforehand with clear expectations and teach them proper skills for participation. We are quick to act and make decisions to keep everyone safe. We never push a child more than s/he feels comfortable. Every child has the autonomy to choose how much they feel comfortable participating in various activities.
Getting Lost—exploring an unfamiliar environment alone
On every group outing we have an adult in the front, middle and back of the group. There are always stragglers and children that love to run ahead. They are children! Each of us learns in his own way. Teachers and Parent Helpers are constantly counting kids to make sure we have eyes on everyone. This is why our 5:1 ratio is very important. But there is much value in allowing a child to explore at his own pace, without an adult hovering and watching his every move. It’s also great for students to get to know their environment. This is why we take similar hikes each week in the same location (especially for the younger students), over the course of a semester, so students can get to know the trails and know how to come back after a little free-exploration.
As your child’s teacher and leader into the outdoors, I promise to do everything in my power to keep him/her safe, and expect the same of all members of our team. We will protect the children in our classes and care for them the way we care for our own children. All Nature Guides are professionals that have received a fingerprinted background check. And I have to say, our team is made up of some really incredible people- responsible educators who are passionate about nature connection. Staff participate in professional development throughout the year, as well as two weeks of paid training before the school year begins, specific to safety in our Nature Program. This training includes First Aid and CPR certification as well as practicing our emergency procedures. If parents would like a copy of the Staff Handbook and Emergency Procedures, feel free to contact me anytime.
We only accept respect toward peers and the environment because we want our school to be a community where everyone feels safe and included. We do our very best to create an environment where students are free to explore, learn, and create in their own unique way, with gentle guidance from knowledgeable adults. And I invite you, the parent, to join us as we learn and grow as a community. I would love to discuss any concerns you may have or specific needs for your child. Please contact me to set up a time to meet in person or chat over the phone.
To comply with liability insurance, we ask that you fill out the legal waiver when you register your child for classes. This waiver is given to us by our insurance, but in no way lessens the responsibility of our teachers to create the safest outdoor learning environment possible. We truly value your friendship and trust and promise to care for your children to the very best of our ability.