The Original Prep School

When kids were allowed to play outside

I recall playing outside as a youngster until dark, when mom would call me home—usually for the third time. My mother, like her mother before her, could recall the same memory from her youth.

prep school

Today’s children will have no such recollection, as childhood has transitioned from outdoors to indoors, and virtual reality has replaced the real world.

Whereas I spent hours each day playing outdoors, a recent study revealed that the typical American child spends only four to seven minutes per day playing outside. By contrast, digital screens hypnotize our children for more than seven hours each day.

With this digital assault on their education it’s hardly a surprise to learn that:

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.

Beyond the basic survival skills that we are failing to pass on to our children, our world has many more violent threats than just a generation ago. In addition to common natural disasters, our society has become increasingly and indiscriminately violent. Unspeakable tragedies happen regularly and include abductions, sexual assaults, and deadly shootings at schools, from kindergartens to universities.

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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 remain inactive, turning our heads to the nearest distraction. The truth is that so many deadly life-altering tragedies surround us that we are, ironically, unaware of them.

Although I thought of playing outside as—well—playful, in truth my childhood play was the original prep school that prepared me to survive in the world.

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.

The games I played with others taught survival skills from teamwork to negotiation, as we bartered baseball cards. We kids foraged for blackberries and muscadines, built tree houses and forts as shelters and knew how to fish and hunt alone before we were 10. We sometimes slept outside and tended our campfires, and we knew a little something about how to avoid violence when we could, but defend ourselves (and others) when we couldn’t.

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 in their environments. As parents, we must take advantage of this and make conscious choices for guiding our children’s games to make sure they learn the skills they need to be prepared for life. It’s our role 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.

LISTEN, THIS IS IMPORTANT STUFF. Just watch this horrifying social experiment video of how easy it is for children to be abducted.

250PPWhile some fates are unavoidable I believe that having improved situational awareness and a survival mindset could save many lives. Let’s teach that life-preserving skill to our children.

Introducing survival concepts to children needn’t be scary and can be accomplished with games that teach both children and parents at the same time.

That’s why I wrote Playful Preparedness last year. It’s a one-of-a-kind preparedness book, packed with 26 games and dozens of activities to help children learn situational awareness, life-saving preparedness skills and the survival mindset.

Just as young children learn their alphabet by singing the ABC song (over and over!), you can help them learn valuable life skills by practicing survival and preparedness games over and over.

Whenever you’re reading this, NOW is the right time for you to take steps to become better prepared for  emergencies and to help your children become better prepared for life.

But teaching survival and preparedness skills to children doesn’t have to be scary. Heck, they don’t even need to know that you’re teaching them. In fact, here’s an example of the first preparedness game in the book:


Game 1: snapshot


Build your children’s observational awareness skills by encouraging them to take a mental snapshot of their environment and recalling as many details as they can.

Concepts Taught

Situational awareness.

Materials required


Before the Activity

Look around at what you will ask your child to observe. Think about what they are likely to remember and choose a few details you consider important to their safety that they are likely to miss, such as exit signs, etc. If they have missed these items at the end of the game, you will point it out and discuss why it’s important (you can also connect this to news stories).

How to Play

  • Stop all distractions, i.e., turn off radios, stop walking, etc.
  • Tell your children to look around and take a mental picture of everything around them. Give them a time limit (one minute, 10 seconds, etc.).
  • During the time limit, make your own notes of what is important for them to see.
  • When time is up ask them to close their eyes and describe their picture to you. Pay attention to the types of details they notice.
  • With their eyes still closed, draw their attention to something you thought was important that they missed. Prompt them to try to remember more. For example, ask them, “Did you notice any exits in the room? Where are they?”
  • When done, ask them to open their eyes and discuss what they remembered. This is a great time to coach them on things that are good to pay attention to.


Each time you play, observe if your children recall the environment in greater detail. If they don’t assess a threat right away, that’s fine—just be sure they increase their awareness and continually improve. Encourage them to focus on details that relate to safety.

Continually challenge them as they become proficient observers by asking them to take a snapshot in busier and more active places, or simply introduce distractions.

Also, let your children turn the tables on you! Tell them that they can pick a place for you to close your eyes and recall what you remember. This gives them the power to put you in the “hot seat” while still accomplishing your goal of increasing their observational awareness. After all, they’re trying to find threats that you missed.[/color-box]

Make playful preparedness a priority in your family. Just let your children guide you and remember—don’t just send your kids to prep school.

Be their prep school!

I hope you enjoy Playful Preparedness, and that it helps you and your children to become better prepared—for life. Even if you don’t have children, it makes a great gift for those who do.

Question: How was your childhood different from that of today’s children? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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