How to Embrace the Forest (and avoid the ticks) without Fear - A response to Slate.com's "Be Very Afraid of Ticks"
This is the headline going around: "The threat of tick-borne diseases is serious and growing. And you’re probably not doing enough to protect your family." (M. Moyer, for Slate)
Wow. That headline. I mean... it does make you want to hide in a corner with a spray bottle of Deet and not even look outdoors. And if you're not feeling bad enough in any other parenting category, add this one: you're not doing enough when it comes to ticks.
Let's just get this out at the beginning: there is more you can do to prevent tick-borne diseases then to "preventatively" cover yourself and your children in chemicals designed to harm.
Of course there are risks on both sides, but what "they" are not telling you is that there are more options - and more effective, valid options - then to either use the admittedly harsh chemicals like Deet and Permethrin or to stay inside all together.
Ticks - and tick-borne diseases - are increasingly more common. If you know anyone who has struggled with chronic lyme disease, you know that it can be an intense and horrid disease, one which we cannot yet fully get a handle on medically. This is real, and the concerns and risks are real.
So here are some real options for prevention:
Learn about ticks and tick-borne disease before you need to - if you prefer alternative therapies and treatments, seek them out now, find out what your holistic doctors might recommend. Ask questions. They might even have prophylactic options (typically used once bitten, not before).
Learn about what to look for - the signs and symptoms beyond "a bulls eye rash." Keep casual track of any weird symptoms, so that if you or your child needs medical support, you will be able to provide a full and accurate history and help achieve a complete and effective treatment.
Take your time to educate your children. There are lots of risks in our daily life, some are worth taking, and some are not! We talk about these to our children, casually, often, while we help them build the knowledge to do so for themselves. We tell them why we do what we do. We're not "very afraid" of the flu, or of common germs, yet we recognize that they are powerful and can cause harm. This is why we wash our hands! This simple step helps lower our risk, and it's easy! This is worth doing. In that same way, we talk about ticks. Where they live, what they like (places mice like! Tall grasses! Cool, damp areas... ) and what they don't like (hot sun, dry sand or mulch, running water).
Talk about options. When we want to go in areas that are higher risk for ticks, we take extra steps to make sure we can stay at play today, and for lots of years to come, without getting sick!
We learn to check our bodies carefully after forest play. Though Moyer, the writer of the Slate article, leads you to imagine this as a long grueling process that can't possibly make outdoor play worth it - it's not hard. Just don't make a big deal out of it, and it'll become normal.
Since poison ivy grows in many of the same areas that ticks like, we are already washing up and scrubbing carefully and we can check for ticks at the same time. Scrub with a cloth or luffa and with a simple soap like Dr. Bronners or Kirk's Castile soap. Check each other's scalps - like monkeys do! A small hand mirror adds fun to checking behind knees and in armpits too without making it an embarrassing or frustrating feat. For older kids, a mirror and good instruction helps insure they do a good job all on their own.
We don't always have to do a full body scrub down - and here's how we avoid that: we wear the right gear. Just like a fly fisherman is able to stay in the water for long hours in wader and a firefighter is able to fight a fire up close while wearing bunker gear, we are able to stay at play without fear (and with lots of fun) when we choose the right gear.
Moyer's retort to the gear answer is that no one really wears pants in the summer - but a light weight pair of pants if great for outdoor play, and most of our boots go up to mid calf in kids from infant 1/2 through big kid size 2 shoes. Tuck pants inside the boots or pair with knee high socks and keep legs covered - easily cutting your risks.
Sometimes play merits pants. Sometimes it doesn't. Know your activity, your area, and your needs. Skipping out on play consistently is a pretty huge risk in itself.
When it comes to gear, we take our children's opinions (and that of our other local testers - aka forest school kids!) very seriously. We test them out. We listen and question. We want to know what kids are going to think - and we want kids to like wearing our gear and be able to stay at play wearing it!
So what do we use? We teach our kids head to toe checklist - or rather boot to brow:
"On my feet I have my ____, on my legs my _____, my core stays cool or warm with ____, and on my neck ______, my hair is up or covered up, and sunglasses on my eyes! I've got a plan for bugs and sun so I can run and run!"
Our answers differ seasonally - up to 80* merino wool acts as an excellent baselayer, keeping the core warm or cool even when damp. Sunglasses may be needed even in winter to protect from the glare off water or snow - change it up to fit your needs!
What's important is not the words, but that they are an active participant in their own safety. Sound complicated for a little time outdoors? It's not - it just becomes part of life and we don't stress it. Plus, we can stay out much longer - which makes those few minutes of prep seem even shorter!
Here's a quick list of what we use:
1) Protective Sprays and Creams - bug spray and sunblock
3) Adventure gear
Billed as "rain gear" here, our adventure gear is used year round all over Europe and Scandinavia, especially in Forest Kindergartens and Forest schools where young kids are outdoors year round, no matter the weather. Our rain pants are a kid favorite - long trousers with gaiter like bottoms make a for great all weather - and cross-terrain - play, and don't allow ticks, poison ivy, or briars to put a stop to the fun. Remember it's often cooler in the woods and rainpants may work longer into the warm weather season if you're in a forest area. When it's too warm, long swim shorts are a great option!
The best baselayer you can get, soft and thin merino wool keeps little adventurers on the go. It helps keep the core warm, even when damp. When your core gets cold, the body's natural defense is to keep blood close the vital organs and the brain, and stop sending it to your extremities. The best solution to cold hands and feet is often to heat up the core! This also means our immune systems can work more effectively: another bonus when it comes to fighting off diseases like lymes. Our woolies are suitable up to 80* - so you'll get a lot of wear out of them! (Plus, they're great for bed - kids sleep better in wool!)
Keeping hair covered with a snug fitting hat means less searching through scalps at the end of the day. It doesn't ticks can't get inside but it makes it less likely and makes them easier to see.
Not for the ticks, but for the sun and the glare off snow, ice, or water. Protect those developing eyes and give yourself one less worry!
7) UV shirts:
Use less sunscreen when you keep things covered with a high quality UV protective top. Not just for swim days, these quick dry shirts are perfect for outdoor play.
8) A good baby carrier that can help you haul even preschoolers out of the forest when they've run themselves ragged and can keep a little one snug in all kinds of weather.
Prepare, protect, and then get out there and enjoy it. We'll see you in the forest!