Kids and Bears and Your Alaskan Adventure

There are two things I learned last week from the 2nd annual “Bear Safety For Families” Class sponsored by AKontheGO and held at Campbell Creek Science Center, the best outdoor education facility in Anchorage. One: The more I know about bears, their behavior, habits, and habitats, the better. Two: The more I learn about bears, the less fearful I am, and the less fearful I am, the more my family can enjoy with respect Alaska’s wilderness for what it is.

Elizabeth Manning, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was our primary teacher for all things bruin, and this mom of two boys had some excellent advice for age-appropriate ways to teach kids about safe bear-aware strategies. Strategies; that’s what it’s all about. Not reactive, but proactive, using sensible tools based upon our newfound knowledge of why bears behave the way they do when confronted by human interlopers.

I swear, this year, after three years of taking bear safety classes and co-sponsoring two of those, I feel more at ease with my wilderness home and the fuzzy animals with which I share the woods. No matter the situation, this year, finally, I know what to do, when to do it, why, and how, and I’m going to make sure my kids know, too.

Below are Elizabeth’s tips for teaching kids and parents the basics of bear safety. Fabulous for visiting families who might be concerned about hiking or camping in the 49th state, and equally great for those residents who may have become a bit complacent about bear safety, the information below is for everybody.

Even little kids can be taught the basics of bear safety. Practice, practice!

TIPS FOR TODDLERS/PRESCHOOLERS (under six): Teach children of this age that bears are wild animals more than willing to share their forest home so long as we do not surprise them. Bears have babies, too, and the bear mommies and daddies are just trying to protect their little ones like you protect them.

Keep children within an arm’s reach at all times, especially in brushy areas or areas near running water (bears might not be able to hear you coming). Put an adult in front and behind of all children on the trail.

Make your own “bear shaker” at home by filling a plastic bottle with popcorn, small rocks, or beans and let kids decorate with markers. OR, take this great AKontheGO’er suggestion and carry small musical instruments found in toy stores (cymbols, maracas, jingle bells, etc).

Sing the “Bear Song”: “Hey there, hi there, ho there, don’t you eat my toes bear!” (silly, but it sticks in your head, believe me). If that fails, 99 bottles of the beverage of your choice works, too.

Begin to practice, practice at home with your little ones. Have mom or dad put a stuffed bear at one end of the room and rehearse what you’d do if you saw a bear in the woods (moving together, being “big” by raising arms, and staying calm). Move outside and do the same thing from different distances.

AK Kid and Mom discuss bear habitat along a brushy trail near Trapper Creek, Alaska.

SCHOOL-AGE SMARTS (K-6): This age can take more responsibility for their own safety. Kids do fire drills at school, and are well-practiced at rehearsing scenarios for safety. Capitalize on this by randomly calling a “bear drill” while hiking or camping. Make one child the “bear” and play the game on an open play field form varying distances. It’s fun and a great way to teach bear safety.

Keep the same strategies as above with regard to keeping children within an arm’s reach, and within the “sandwich” of an adult. No solo exploring!

Teach the facts about bears; show kids what bears eat, where they live, what their poop looks like (oh yeah, now that’s cool).

Do the craft listed above, but add a string or other fancy accoutrement, just be sure it still makes noise.

Speaking of noise, make some. Not that this age usually has any problem.

Visit the Department of Fish and Game of Alaska Public Lands Center in Anchorage for cool stickers and placards and other cool “bear swag” to remind kids of bear safety.

Yes, they did listen to the whole presentation!

TOO-COOL ‘TWEENS/TEENS (Grades 7-12): Oh yes, this age can be a bit of a problem, especially given their penchant for ear buds and attitudes. But, we’ve found, kids of the ‘tween/teen genre like to be in charge of their own selves and thus tend to pay attention when involved intimately in the subject of interest. Bears are interesting and sort of scary, and this age can be a boon to parents for both learning and teaching safe bear encounter response.

Continue bear-safety scenarios; but do it in a more group-oriented manner. Do a “bear safety scavenger hunt”, whereby kids need to find facts about bears or bear behavior all around the town. Big fun and big education. Visit the ADF&G office, Public Lands Building, Alaska Zoo, Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and Campbell Creek Science Center as part of the day’s events. Great for an Alaskan-themed birthday party or end-of-school-year bash, or even a boy or girl scout troop event. Manning has a bear-themed game she plays with school kids, ask for a copy.

Teach kids to safely use bear spray. Ages 10+ can be well-versed in using the pepper spray, if taught by a responsible adult. Contact CCSC for information on other pepper spray clinics throughout the year.

Show kids the DVD “Staying Safe in Bear Country”. It is the most practical, comprehensive movie showing bear behavior and the reasons behind particular responses to people. It is fabulous, and everyone visiting Alaska or residing in the 49th state should watch. Campbell Creek Science Center has a few copies to loan, or purchase HERE.

Remind, remind, remind kids to unplug while in the woods. I had to remind at least five teens on Trails Day to unplug the earbuds, and they looked at me like I was nuts. Just do it.

Teens still need to travel in noisy groups, whether biking, hiking, or just “hanging out” at the local riverside park. Ahem.

There is no need to be “Bearnoid” when traveling the backroads and hiking trails of Alaska. Really. Knowledge is power, and the family that learns together is a powerful unit, indeed.

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