The Culture of Danger in Early Childhood Education. Or How to Play in the Backyard with Bears, Moose, and Coyotes


The Culture of Danger in Early Childhood Education. Or How to Play in the Backyard with Bears, Moose, and Coyotes

This post was written by Suzanne Major, PhD, Anthropology of Early Childhood Education.

I have moved this summer to a wonderful community called Doaktown in the Atlantic province of New Brunswick, Canada. Snuggled against the Miramichi river, this village is known worldwide for its salmon fishing. Hundreds of miles of forest surround the village and only one road links it to the south and the north, Route 8.

The first time I came to the village, I saw a black bear about two street corners from my house. Then I saw another casually strolling in someone’s backyard across the road from a daycare center. Every week there are reports of bear, moose, and deer sightings. Unfortunately, there are often collisions between cars and animals resulting in injury and death. The moose is the most dangerous because of its unpredictable behavior and its sheer size. Coyotes are harder to see but reports warn of their fading fear of humans and their growing boldness. Coyotes here are "a hybrid of the smaller western coyote from the Prairies and wolves from the Great Lakes Region. This species was first recorded in the 1950s," [1] says Graham Forbes, a biodiversity and wildlife professor at the University of New Brunswick. It seems that these coyotes are big and more wolf-like.

Despite the local wildlife, one of the things that surprised me when I moved to the village was the fact that there are no fences marking the limits of the properties or protecting backyards and play areas. In trying to account for the lack of fences, I reasoned that deer can jump, bears can climb over fences, and moose can crash through them if they take a fancy to it! When I first asked someone why there were no fences, the person gave me a puzzled look and said, "We don’t do that here." They elaborated to share that people know and respect the limits of properties. A fence would send an unwelcoming signal to people. Animals are rarely seen in the village itself. Bears quickly run into the woods when they see us while moose and coyote keep their distance. An experienced hunter told me, "Deer can see us way before we can see them!"

Throughout my professional career, I have discussed the "culture of danger" in early childhood education, teaching the principles and applications of child safety and security. I have been wondering how to encourage outside play when the presence of wild animals is so obvious.

The "culture of danger," [2] initiated in the 19th century, became a complete technology of protection in the late 20th century. In addition to childproofing homes, daycare facilities, and outside play areas, people equip daycare settings with all manners of security equipment. Some other examples of the "culture of danger" include managing relations with known and unknown older children and adults, managing nutrition, medication, infections, and childhood diseases, seeing to affective, and psychological dispositions for the wellbeing of young children, and fighting off poverty. Some, like Michel Foucault [3] even suggested that placing young children in educational environments is in fact a measure of confinement rooted in the "culture of danger." Outside play areas shared with wildlife like bears, deer, moose, and coyotes are interesting situations.

I asked a young mother who grew up here in the village how she managed to play outside with her twelve-month-old. What would she do if a bear came around? She looked at me very surprised as if the answer was elementary. She clapped her hands twice, loudly, then made a shooing sound. With this, she expressed knowledge of wildlife behavior. She knows to be very careful at the sight of bear cubs in spring and early summer. She knows to scare coyotes with loud noises to cultivate their fear of humans. She also knows not to approach a male moose if she had the chance to see one in the fall, as the moose's temper can easily flare up. She knows to respect local wildlife.

Educating young children about their environment and its inhabitants is best done at a safe distance of course, but focusing on children's senses is the pedagogical way of navigating wildlife interactions. Young children can learn critical skills, like observation.

From six months to 24 months of age, children are still learning to focus, discern, perceive, and identify. If they were looking at a bear in the backyard, it would take time for them to make sense of what they were looking at.

Two and three-year-olds are particularly interested in the specific aspect of "sounds." Imitating animals and listening to wildlife in nature is particularly effective.

Children from three and four years of age are fascinated by descriptive details, the composition of structures as well as "functions." Thus, extensive observation can be interesting.

Four-, five- and six-year-olds can explore and experiment with "functions and conventions." [4] Children at these ages love to regroup, associate, and collect things.

When a young child is surprised by a loud sound or brisk movement they will often jump up startled and cry. When they are two or three, they will look to an adult for information and proper reaction," sliding of their gaze toward the adult and holding it." [5] This gesture of sliding their gaze soon disappears when the child acquires maturity. Young children from birth learn to read the eyes of adults to acquire complex information without using words. Children learn about fear and flight, safety, and approach, making a stand and fighting, but also how to dismiss, discredit or ignore information that would be too difficult for their minds to integrate. Their understanding of complex information like that is more affective and not so much intellectual. Knowing about this capability can be integrated into our pedagogical understanding of the environmental education of young children.

In my next blog, I will write further about the different capabilities of very young children. If you have any comments, please write to me:

SM/sm blog 17 October 2022



[2] Holmer Nadesan, M. (2010: 27). Governing Childhood into the 21st Century. Biopolitical Technologies of Childhood Management and Education, PalGrave Macmillan, 245 pages.

[3] Idem (2010: 2)

[4] Thériault, J. & Lavoie, N. (2004 : 32, 36, 43). L’éveil à la lecture et à l’écriture. Une responsabilité familiale et communautaire, Les Éditions logiques, 149 pages.

[5] Montagner, H. (2006 : 227). L’arbre enfant. Une nouvelle approche du développement de l’enfant, Odile Jacob, 353 pages.


Thank you for writing this post, Suzanne! I enjoyed reading about the community of Doaktown and its local wildlife. And I appreciated learning more about the pedagogy of how children sense their environment by different ages. Wonderful post, thank you!