Eleven outdoor skills to teach your kids—or yourself

They’ll come in handy after the pandemic, too.
child carrying a log in woods.
Teach you kids some new outdoor skills to fill up free time. Christine Peterson

This story originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Unless you’re an engineer or calculus teacher, you probably aren’t going to be able to help your high school senior with math homework. Nor will you likely teach a 5-year-old to speak a foreign language fluently. Let’s face it, few of us are teachers and even fewer are trained to teach whatever grade level and subject matter your suddenly homeschooled student is trying to learn. But you might be qualified to teach outdoor skills.

How to sharpen knives, use a compass, and build an emergency shelter are important. They’re also more fun than suffering through schoolwork. I’m not advocating parents permanently pump the brakes on reading and arithmetic, just gently suggesting you use this newfound time to do something other than fight over how much TV they watch.

“If you’re trying to force them to do schoolwork every day, that’s going to be a drag and they will get burned out quick,” says Zach Even, a high school art teacher in Lander, Wyoming, father to twin 11-year-olds and an avid outdoors person.

So stop worrying so much about worksheets and e-learning and start thinking about the skills you’d really like your kids to know. The ones maybe your parents taught you, or their parents taught them. The ones you never really had the time to spend on before. Think about what you want your kids to be able to do if they found themselves in a survival scenario. And if you don’t want to go there, just think of the next few months as a way to bond over something you love, not the ones you’re being cajoled into teaching.

As a bonus, you’ll not only be creating a more capable outdoor companion, but it may also be a good refresher for you. And, who knows, your kids may learn some math and science along the way.

We shouldn’t have to remind you, but will, that some of these are clearly age dependent. I have a 3-year-old, and while she’s spent many nights helping me build a campfire, she’s not ready to sharpen knives or drive the truck.

Build an emergency shelter

If it’s still winter where you live, find a pile of snow or a snowdrift and show your kid how to build a cave. Talk them through angles—don’t dig straight, create a wider space in the back—and how to punch a small hole through a wall to circulate fresh air. If it’s not still winter, help them build a lean-to where they could spend a night, if needed. If you want, you could even make a lesson of it and have them research building techniques before heading outside.

Study how bullets and arrows work

If ignoring schoolwork is giving you a little heartburn, don’t fret, you can still work plenty of math and science lessons into these skills. Teaching how to reload bullets is a perfect example: Different weights can lead to discussions on momentum and energy. If you’re more of an archery person, teach your kids how to fletch their own arrows and discuss the same topics. Then go outside and practice shooting, taking those lessons from the classroom to the field.

Teach animal anatomy

Maybe you already talk about basic deer anatomy before hunting seasons open, but now is an even better time to go over the basics on any species you may want to hunt—or even those you don’t. The tutorials can go over not only physiology of the creatures but also necessary angles for kill shots. With turkey season upon us, start with gobblers. When you shoot one, take the time to go over what you see in the field. I guarantee whatever biology class your kid is in, he or she is not learning how to dissect a wild turkey. You can also go fishing and apply the same dissecting lessons with your catch. Instead of filleting and moving on, take the time to explain each part and its function.

Demonstrate tying flies

We’ve all been teaching our kids how to fish since they were old enough to hold a rod, but have you worked on fly tying? If not, this is a great time. Even, the teacher, resolved to use some of the homeschooling hours to practice fly tying with his kids. Start with a simple dubbing nymph, then move to a basic nymph like a pheasant-tail before moving to a woolly bugger. You could also try an egg pattern. You’re working not just on entomology and matching flies to hatches, but also art skills.

Host some knife-sharpening tutorials

Sharpening knives is a skill all outdoors people should have. It’s usually just a task we do while preparing for a hunting or fishing trip, or working in the shop some evening. It’s rarely something we go over with our kids—but consider it. Demonstrate the basics of knife sharpening in the woods when you’re in a pinch or in the shop when you need a sharper blade for butchering. Helpful hint: Start with the knives you don’t care as much about.

Use geocaching to learn navigation

We’ve broken navigation skills into two lessons. Start by teaching your kids how to use a GPS. You likely have one, and they should know how to use it. But if you want this to be less of a how-to and more of an activity, create a geocache for them. Hide objects in an area near your house and set them on a course.

Or learn navigation the old-fashioned way

Get out your map and compass and start going over those skills you likely learned as a kid. Go over the basics. Then head outside for a scavenger hunt, Even suggests. “Give them a starting point, a bearing, and a certain number of steps and then some type of clue.” When they arrive and find a box, include a clue for the next point. Make it fun and put ingredients for cookies in each package so there’s a reward at the end.

Go over building fires

If you haven’t taught your kids how to start a fire in the woods, now is the time. Even our 3-year-old knows how to stack sticks on top of red needles to start a blaze. The older the child, the more complicated you can be with fire starting. Go over using flint and a glass lens. Incorporate a little chemistry by lighting steel wool on fire with a battery.

Outline basic mechanics

This isn’t a skill directly tied to the outdoors, but it’s important to know how to change a flat tire when you’re stuck on a dirt road with no cell service. Teach your kid the basics. Go over how to change a vehicle’s oil, check tire pressure, run jumper cables, and swap a tire. Also be willing to teach your kid how to operate an ATV, and if you’re on two-track roads in the backwoods, how to drive your vehicle. Even had his kids driving on a two-track when they were 8 years old, not so they could joy ride, but so if they were out hunting together and he was injured, one of them could get help.

Plant a garden or harvest in the wild

It’s spring, and if you don’t have a garden yet, now is a good time to start putting one in the ground. Use that free labor you have in your house to teach kids how to grow basic vegetables. Then put them in charge of watering and working with you on weeding, learning what you want and don’t want in the garden. For older kids, head into the woods to harvest morels or other native edibles.

Pack a survival kit

Even if you already have yours put together, it’s the perfect moment to make sure your first aid kit and survival pack are up to date and complete. But instead of sorting through it on your own, show your kid, too. Start one if you don’t already have it ready. Here’s a good place to begin.