Building Situational Awareness in Kids

Situational Awareness, to me, is simply being present in the environment you are currently in, being aware of any significant changes happening and essentially remaining grounded and observing what is going on around you.


In the age of 24/7 distraction devices that we can hold in the palm of our hand, engineered and refined to grab your attention and hold onto it, it’s important to also remind ourselves and our kids, that the screen isn’t the real world – and there is a lot going on around us at all times – and the more attention we pay to it, the easier we can move through the world.

I am aware in some circles, situational awareness quickly dips into the world of tactical training and ‘preparedness – and while some of this is important, I am not actively teaching my kids to look behind doors as they enter rooms and immediately assess if strangers are ‘printing’ under their shirts.

Something simpler is the foundation here.

For kids, and, understandably so, they start their life all but oblivious of anything more than a meter or so from them – they are the centre of their own world, punctuated by mum, dad and other people. And it’s important, as they grow to help them become more and more aware of their surroundings – both for their enjoyment and their safety.

The obvious one here is kids just walking ‘blindly’ onto the road – but it’s also about them developing a sense of awareness in general, a sense of location when out in the world and a sense of responsibility for staying in touch with what’s going on around them.

It’s about being in the moment, but not lost in the moment.

“Observe everything, admire nothing” is a quote from Nathan Flick in the HBO series Generation Kill – it’s the notion that you need to be open and be aware of what is going on around you, without getting distracted or sucked into specific details that then close down your situational awareness. Target fixation or tunnel vision are other appropriate terms here.

There is a lot going on to distract kids when out and about. I have to remind myself constantly that a lot of it is brand new and intensely interesting, in fact, I try as a jaded adult to tap into that curiosity myself a lot of the time. This one is certainly an interesting give and take as I try to teach them ‘adult’ skills, and they teach me to remain a little bit of a child.

Developing Observational Skills

For kids, creating little challenges and games seems to be the easiest way to start developing a sense of situational awareness.

The observational skills I was taught during LandSAR training stuck with me – particular a sense of keeping an eye out for things that ‘shouldn’t be there’ in the bush. My eye tends to get drawn to rubbish and synthetic edges in the forest for example. This started the kids off, as they would see me spotting and stopping to pick up the rubbish, and started wanting to do so themselves.

Spotting and placing rocks in the bush is another great pastime and helps observational and spotting skills.

In the bush

Recently, with the kids, while on a bushwalk, I started pointing out the bait line ribbons off tracks. Then it was also spotting the actual traps they lead to – noticing there were different colours, and recently, simply deciding to walk off the main track and start following the markers to see where they led. Now it’s a challenge – ‘who can spot the ribbons and markers first’ – of course, some simple reward (generally lollies) motivates us all to win.

This has had an interesting side effect as well – I know have a couple of girls who want to start helping out with the baitlines in the local park – a little conservation education opportunity as well!

The other senses are important as well – if there is a stream nearby, I regularly ask them to point to it, explaining as well, that this gives them a sense of direction, if we can hear the stream, we can likely find our way back to it, and several times now, I have let them do so (initially getting lost on the way).

Where are we?

Another thing I have started to do is let them lead us back to the start of the track. Especially on the local paths – they are starting to remember and become aware of basic routes we take. As we duck off into the bush on either side for some ‘light’ bush-bashing – when they pop back out on a track it is up to them (with a little encouragement and questioning) to decide which we need to go to get back to where we started. As they get this right more, their confidence develops, and they also realise that they need to stay aware of where they are walking because it is a lot easier to find your way back if you don’t get lost in the first place.

Driving there, driving back

‘I spy’ is a tried and tested game. Another we play is ‘spotto’ – we have a defined list of things that can be spotted and called out for a point – emergency vehicles, cranes, other Defenders being the top of the list. It means the kids are actively out there looking for things in the environment.

Observing changes in others

I have also started getting the girls to observe body language and behaviour. Mainly in animals – it’s simply a case of getting them to notice and appropriately react to the change in body language that any animal exhibits when you get close to them. Birds at a pond are great for this. There is generally a definitive point where a duck goes from not really caring to being hyper-aware of your presence. Take another step and the language they use changes quickly.

I explain this is how you can listen to the animals talking to you. Even though they can’t speak our language if you listen (and observe) you can still understand what they are saying to you. I then point out that humans do the same thing. People watching is something I have enjoyed doing for years – simply observing people in public – forming theories around what they are up to.

Noting the change

It is the change from an established baseline that gives us the best clues. I teach the girls to observe the animal before they even approach it. Try to watch it while it is comfortable and ideally, not even aware you are there. Then, as you get closer (because despite it not often working, they want to pat everything) you can see the body language change as they become aware of the approach and significantly change once you get into their ‘personal space’. The big girl found much amusement recently with a goose that would give a quack every time she took a step closer. Then a step back, then a step forward, quack, step back, step forward, quack…


The same observational skill games can be played anywhere. At the shops – how many people are wearing a red top? How many people with hats can we spot? What was the person who served us wearing? Where did we park the car?

From a safety point of view, I tend to always like to know where the emergency exit is, and I have a habit of looking for things like fire extinguishers, defib boxes and generally just read the signs around the place.

Dont Go Overboard

We are talking about kids here. Don’t go overboard, don’t install fear. We are not observing our surroundings because bad people could be about and we need to be ready to leap into action. We are simply being aware of our surroundings because, well, it’s the world we live in. Why wouldn’t we be?

Be here. Now.