The great outdoors have an innate appeal to children, but these days there's a lot of competition for their attention--not least the ubiquitous distraction of social media and mobile games. Instilling in kids a lifelong love of Mother Nature is one of the worthiest endeavors a parent can pursue, given the importance of environmental ethics and a basic understanding of ecological principles and the healthful effects of getting out and about on hiking trails and paddling streams.
If your youngsters are skeptical about camping--or at all too easily bored at the campsite--here are some surefire activities and strategies to engage them more deeply in the experience.
Half the fun of camping is cooking and eating outside. Getting kids to participate in meal preparation kills a few birds with one stone: It's a nice way to challenge and stimulate them, while you get some helping hands around the outdoor kitchen!
As important and versatile as a camp stove is, the campfire itself has a lot to offer as a culinary aid, and cooking over open flames taps into something primordial no matter your age. And the possibilities go far beyond roasted marshmallows (though those are mighty hard to beat).
For instance, kids can butter slices of bread for camp toast, browned directly on the campfire grill or in a skillet placed atop it. They can grate cheese or, depending on their age, slice onions, peppers, and other ingredients to be sautéed for a fire-browned quesadilla (warm one side of a flour tortilla on the grill or skillet; flip over and add the cheese and filling; then fold the tortilla in half and crisp on both sides). Or they can help wrap up corn-on-the-cob, potatoes, or hamburger patties in aluminum foil and cook them on coals.
It may seem counter-intuitive to get kids interested in the camping experience by involving them in the seemingly tiresome tasks of campsite housekeeping--especially when it's hard enough to get them to help out back home. But if you frame the work as a chance to play pioneer or cowboy, they can get surprisingly excited about it.
Even younger children can help with building a campfire, even if they aren't actually lighting the thing. Constructing a good, solid, flame-promoting structure out of tinder, kindling, and firewood is educational and fun. Kids can also fetch water and douse the flames, an equally critical skill to impart.
Delegate cleanup tasks in assembly-line fashion and make it a lighthearted nighttime game by headlamp. Give the kids the responsibility of properly securing food and garbage from prowling critters, whether squirrels or bears. (They'll probably be excited by the prospect of such four-legged neighbors.)
Other Camping Activities
There are countless other ways to muster kids into the camping spirit. Let them choose a trail for the day's hike. Make a safari out of the afternoon by seeing if they can find and identify wildlife sign in the vicinity. If you're in a national or state park that offers special interpretive programs for younger campers, help them complete the requisite activities. Whether toddlers or teenagers, hardly anyone can resist a good ghost story around the campfire--or the challenge of improvising one on the spot.
Hands-on participation in a camping trip isn't restricted to the main event, either: There are plenty of possibilities for vacation-themed activities before and after the getaway. If you're in the market for a new wilderness-ready vehicle, for example, invite older children to scour a buying guide with you. Crack out the maps and give them a say in planning your national-park-hopping route. On the heels of a camping trip, meanwhile, have the whole family make a scrapbook or write stories about the experience.
Many an outdoors-loving adult can trace his or her passion back to family camping trips. And the best way to make those trips something the whole crew looks forward to is to get kids to be active participants in the affair, from campfire cooking to route-finding!
Michael Galloway has a military background and loves taking his kids camping when he gets the chance. He enjoys combining his professional and practical parenting skills to create great camping adventures and is always pleased to share his ideas with others online.