Camping with Kids: Celebrate Summer by Participating in the Great American Campout
by Katie Beltramo
Camping is a rite of passage essential to an idyllic childhood. In theory. But worries about equipment, weather, and safety can deter your average grown-up. Backyard camping is the perfect solution. The house provides a safety net, and even in your own backyard, there’s something magical about sleeping outside. Build a camping tradition early, and the whole family will look forward to it every year.
The Great American Campout was organized to coax more families outdoors by the National Wildlife Federation’s Be Out There campaign. Today’s American child averages only 4 to 7 minutes outside per day, according to Anne Keisman of the Be Out There campaign. This shift has contributed to a variety of health issues, including rising diagnoses of obesity, ADHD, and depression. Backyard camping, Keisman says, offers “a way to slow down those busy family schedules, enjoy being together, and appreciate the simple joys only nature can deliver.” You can visit a local campsite or start with a campout in the backyard. Just recruit some friends and pledge to camp for wildlife. You’ll get access to packing lists and tips to cover all the safety and comfort basics. Then, start planning the fun.
Prepare activities that focus on nature. For toddlers, Keisman says, organize a simple picture scavenger hunt with items like a flower, a rock, and a leaf. Lynn Brunelle, author of Camp Out! The Ultimate Kids’ Guide, says to look for signs of animals like “footprints, nests, feathers, or even wild animal poop!” Gather binoculars and magnifying glasses to admire nature near and far and field guides to study birds, bugs, flowers, or stars. Collect jars for catching fireflies and turn over rocks to see what other bugs you can find. Brunelle suggests you try to “sprout your socks.” Let your children wear socks over their shoes while taking a walk or hike. “It’s a wonderful way to see how plants send their seeds as hitch-hikers through the world,” Brunelle explains. “Then you can spritz your socks with water, stick them in a baggie, and let them sprout.” Plan to have at least one flashlight per person. Flashlights are a kid-favorite for play, but they’ll also make everyone feel more secure all night.
Cooking out might be the best part of camping, and kids love to help. Roasting hot dogs on sticks is a classic, or offer a buffet so that each person can make a personalized campfire dish. Start by cutting foot-long pieces of aluminum foil and labeling each person’s name with a permanent marker. Then let campers fill them with a selection of ground or cubed meat and potatoes; pepper strips, sliced mushrooms, or other vegetables; and about a tablespoon of butter or dressing. Seal packets tightly and put them into hot coals for 30 to 40 minutes. The result is so delicious that I still remember my first foil dinner as a Brownie decades ago, and the novelty of preparation might inspire your pickiest eater to try something new.
For dessert, roasted marshmallows are practically required, but you can also get creative. Brunelle suggests Banana Boats: cut a banana in half and open the peels a bit, canoe-style, then stuff them with goodies like chocolate chips and marshmallows and wrap the dessert in foil to heat for ten minutes. All these recipes are flexible because discovering what works is part of the adventure. On one of our campouts, rain began pouring just as we’d started to roast marshmallows, melting them into wet goo before we could produce a single s’more. I expected tears until I realized that my daughters were shrieking with joy through the rain to feast on plain chocolate bars in their tent.
Be together in the world
As you settle in for the night, enjoy the camaraderie of camping. Oya Simpson, a mom who organized a Great American Campout, says “There is no doubt that when the sun goes down, kids love the mystery it brings. Just to be outside with our fire pit to sit around and talk about the stars, the sounds of the frogs and watching the fire was enough for the kids. I think it helps families to focus on each other without the interruption of phones ringing, TV, or other chores we may have to do at home.” Tell stories or bring musical instruments for a jam-and-sing around the campfire. Have extra blankets on hand so that sleeping arrangements can be flexible. On a special night of camping, your usually-clingy child might want to join a tent slumber party, so be prepared to seize the night.
Just before bedtime, take a last visit to the bathroom and confirm that flashlights have batteries to last all night. Read books as usual, then play a quiet listening game, asking children to try to hear as many different nature sounds as they can. This is an opportunity to learn, but it will also calm everyone down and give you a chance to explain any noises that might seem scary if a child wakes up during the night.
When morning breaks
In the morning, offer a simple breakfast that won’t require the kids to enter the kitchen. It will be easier on you, and it helps preserve that special camping spell a little bit longer. Brunelle says that camping “creates an appreciation for the world and history and family and nature. It’s a great way to connect with each other, to get perspective, and to learn respect and awe.”
Once everyone is awake and the morning dew has dried, that awestruck spell is broken, and it’s back to normal life. Get the kids to help clean up, setting a precedent for future camping adventures. Then, plan to take it easy for the rest of the day. All of that fresh air and fun is exhausting!
Looking for more inspiration? Grab a copy of Camp Sunset! This "Modern Camper's Guide" offers all the information you need to get started camping along with gorgeous photos sure to inspire wanderlust in even your starchiest couch potatoes! There are checklists, environmentally-specific tips for camping in different locations, the basics on camping activities like hiking, fishing, and boating, and tons of creative and delicious-sounding recipes. It's all delivered with humor ("like women's fashions. . . tent sizes can run small") and with an emphasis on fun for everyone, whether it's cocktail recipes for the grown-ups or crafts and games for the kids. Check out their camping checklist and their fun merit badges online.
All geared up? Check out KidsOutAndAbout's list of some of our favorite camping products.
Have trouble setting aside the devices? If you must pull out your phone, use it to take a camping selfie, or #campie, and share it on the National Wildlife Federation's Instagram or Facebook page with #campie or #campout2016 to join the virtual campout party.
Katie Beltramo, a mother of two, is an editor at Kids Out and About. She also blogs at Capital District Fun and contributes to All Over Albany and a variety of regional parenting publications.