So please allow me to illuminate what foraging with small children is like. My two are currently six and three and accompany me on the vast majority of outings. We establish the rules of the outing every time. Do they follow the rules every time? No...not perfectly. But they try! As taxing as it can be I try very hard to leave room for excitement. I don't want to squish the enthusiasm for exploring and harvesting so I have these safety practices:
1. Eyes on little hands! Yes it means that for now I'm not going to be pulling in 10 or 15 pounds of morels because I can't keep my eyes on the forest floor 100% of the time, but I'd rather give my kiddos the freedom to explore. It's their job to learn, it's my job to be watchful and keep that learning safe.
2. Child transport devices. My six year old has matured beyond the need for such things but if the little one is having an unfocused day and is pushing the boundaries a little too far into the cart or carrier she goes! While she's in there I will hand her safe nature things to explore like edible flowers or interesting rocks or maybe a feather to look at. That way she still gets to join the fun but at a pace controlled by me.
3. I either stay on property or I bring a dog...sometimes both and we make lots of noise! Some day when my kids are older I'll be able to teach them how to walk quietly and catch glimpses of owls, deer, and foxes but right now I can think of very few things less pleasant than an unexpected encounter with a large predator and my children. Thankfully most predators want nothing to do with a pack of humans and their dogs so our noise level tends to clear wildlife away from our immediate area. I am still very vigilant though and like to stay in areas where there is a history of human activity and where I have a decent radius of visibility. I also tend to stay in cellphone range just in case.
4. There are some terrains we just don't do right now. I don't do a lot of wetland harvesting and this summer I think we might start learning about how to explore rivers safely. Water is probably my number one concern as far as terrain goes but we also steer clear of woods that are too thick with blackberries or snarly branches as picking their way through that can really zap their energy. Along with terrain comes being prepared to do multiple and frequent full body tick checks! My kids think I'm nuts because every time they scratch an itch I'm there in a split second making sure it's not a little blood sucker!
5. This is a special feature of foraging knowledge I have yet to employ in an emergency but make sure to keep locked in the brain box just in case. There are plants and fungi out there that will cause an immediate purge of the digestive system. If the child (or animal) has just popped something into their mouth and you can get to them within seconds of swallowing the finger gag thing works just fine to regurgitate it. But if your child only tells you later that they ate something and it's making them feel funny you're going to want to reach for either activated charcoal (which is a great addition to your bag) or if you're lucky your area will be prolific with a plant helper in this regard. Here our most common emetic is the speckled alder. It is so incredibly bitter that chewing on the bark will indeed make you toss all of your cookies! This will buy you time until you can get your child and a sample of the offending "treat" to medical professionals.
6. I am not shy about telling my kids why they aren't supposed to eat something. Rather than just saying "That's yucky" I will go into great detail about what exactly that plant or fungi can do to their system and in what amount of time. As long as it is delivered in a matter of fact tone it doesn't scare them, if we're being honest it sort of intrigues my six year old. He usually wants to ask more questions about it which I find solidifies the identification and my warnings into his memory.
Children were made to explore and investigate, they were born for adventures and learning! I believe in wild children. I believe the freedom to grow and interact with nature is the most precious gift I can possibly give my little ones. I love to watch them discover the world around them. This is how we raise the generation that will save us all. If we impart a love, respect, and understanding of the natural world to our children they will grow up already forming ideas and plans to protect our wild places. Taking the time to invest in the wilderness education of children means we are taking the time to invest in the future of our planet.