Monday, August 18, 2014

Camping with Kids - Eight Activities to Keep Kids Busy and Engaged in the Outdoors

Do you live to camp, only to have your trips soured by unhappy kids? For a time, my hiking, paddling, and camping adventures were sabotaged by my unengaged child. Through trial and (ahem) mostly error I implemented a new set of rules to hike, paddle, and camp by.

What works for me?

After ensuring Rule #1 is covered ensure everyone gets fed, stays warm, and has protection from excessive bug and sun exposure, I go to work on Rule #2, keep kids engaged.

How do I keep kids busy without overloading my pack with toys, or making the trip about stopping at arcades, ice cream shops, and tourist traps?

I’ve enjoyed success using the following 8 tips…


1. Invite a friend

Bring a friend for your child to play with. Will extra feeding and care for an extra child be required? Absolutely, yes. But you will have more whine-free time to enjoy your trip and your adult pursuits because the children will entertain each other. 

Is your child too small for sleep-overs? Why not invite the friend’s family to camp with you? With the child’s parents in tow, there will be no trip back to the city with the child who cannot sleep away from Mama for fear spiders or bears may attack at any moment. If your child is no longer a toddler, a friend will go further than any toy, game, or snack bribe in making the camping experience more pleasant for everyone.

2. Nature art keeps kids busy in the outdoors

Sticks, stones, acorns, feathers, shells, fallen leaves, and other natural finds make for ready art supplies. Look for an opportunity to take a break and do nature art when children tire of fishing, get restless sitting around the campsite, or while hiking.

Try leaving some nature art behind and imagining what the next campers will think of it. Once these traditions start, they can take on lives of their own.

3. Photography keeps kids engaged in the outdoors

Why not let your child keep an eye out for photo opportunities and shoot a few digital pictures? There is no film cost. The photos may not be keepers, but will be entertainment for the child and a source of “I took this picture myself” pride. 

It is also an opportunity for us to practice patience and teach our children to behave responsibly with valuable items. It is best to use a wrist strap or other safety device to prevent the child from dropping the camera over a cliff or into the lake.

You know your child better than anyone. By all means use your best judgment. Can your child handle the responsibility, or will the responsibility lead to a bad experience for everyone involved?

4. Toys, a little bit goes a long way towards keeping kids happy in camp

Luckily my child is a creature of logic and the explanation of the fate her favorite stuffed animals could endure was enough to deter her from bringing them on outings when she was small. Indeed, stuffed animals and cloth dolls can come to bad ends in the outdoors. If your child cannot live without an attachment buddy, if at all possible, encourage attachment to a special camping buddy who happens to be waterproof, nonelectric, and easily washed. Now that our daughter is in second grade, she still understands the risks and takes responsibility to bring the stuffed animal with a rule that it stays in a dry bag when outside the tent for the best shot at preserving it for future snuggles. She knows if she is not vigilant, she will ruin a favorite possession.

A deck of game cards, a Rubik's Cube, or a baggie filled with small building blocks can help pass the time on rainy days without occupying too much weight or space in the backpack. Tired of being stuck in the tent waiting for the rain to go away? Why not let kids put on swim suits or fast drying clothes and play in the rain?

On or in the water? Allow your child to bring one floaty toy. If you don’t want to double back to retrieve it twenty times, put a string on it and tie it to the boat. Our daughter, who quickly tired of canoe rides as a small child, lasted longer with a floaty toy present.

The biggest winners have been a plastic boat tied to a string, and a squirt gun to fill and squirt around. Just ensure the toy floats even if it takes on water. I will never forget the day my child removed her wrist loop and soon thereafter threw her Gumby-on-a-string into the lake. We failed to recover Gumby. She cried miserably for the remainder of our paddle.

Got teens? Teenagers love to be in and on the water. When teens get bored, it leads behaviors that frustrate everyone. What have I seen work? Exercise! On the trail and in the water, with the favorite activity being paddling kayaks and canoes. This is also a good opportunity for the older kids to gain a bit of freedom by putting some distance between themselves and the adults and smaller children. Older kids also have a great time swimming. 

5. Star-gazing keeps kids busy in camp

Urban and suburban night skies cannot compete with night skies in camp. Kids can’t help but find the night sky in the wilderness amazing. Find a clearing and as the sky darkens, see who can spot the first star. Begin to count them. 

Soon the sky will fill with stars. Look for patterns in the night, discuss the phase of the moon, or try to find the big dipper or other constellations. If you’re lucky you might just spot some bats flying as you gaze at the night sky making the night all the more exciting for your child.

6. Navigation keeps kids engaged on the trail and on the Water       

Whether hiking or paddling, children will feel more like part of the fun if they are included in map reading, compass reading, and spotting landmarks. Got an old compass? Attach it to your child’s backpack. Going on a hike or paddle? Print out an extra copy of the route for your child.

You get a double bonus with this idea. You’re providing entertainment for today, and building navigation skills for tomorrow. Everybody wins.

7. Writing it down keeps kids busy in camp

Let your child hide a special rock and create a treasure map for finding it. Or, you hide something your child might enjoy finding and draw a treasure map for your child. Forgot your pencil? Play hot and cold. 

Do your children like to plan and make lists? Mine does, but her letters are illegible and everything must be slowly and repeatedly spelled. I know, I know. Take a deep breath. Be patient.

Suggest to your child to make a list of things to look for on your hike (animal tracks, wild flowers, pine cones, clouds, ants, deer…). Cross them off as they are found on your “treasure hunt”. Shhh! Don’t tell the kids. The phase “treasure hunt” is fool-me-into-thinking-it’s-fun code for hiking. 

Another twist on this is to go for a walk and have your child write down all the interesting bugs, critters, and sights you see. Then, ask them to get the list out at campfire time and talk about it.

8. Story telling keeps kids happy in camp

Kids love campfire stories. My child loves made up stories with herself as the lead character saving an imaginary sibling from the evil witch, or using her super powers to stop the bad guys.
Not the creative type? Tell the classic children’s stories from your child hood such as The Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood.

Kids too old for fairy tales? Get them to tell ghost stories, or talk about stuff that happened in school. Do they insist you tell the stories? This can get old after a while, especially if you are fresh out of creative story lines.

If they are small enough to appreciate it, tell the story of when they were born, or how Mom and Dad met, or funny things they did when they were small. Talk about the first words they said, or the time they insisted on wearing a ski hat and gloves to the park and it was ninety-two degrees outside. Smaller kids love this.

Keeping kids busy and engaged in the outdoors – a final word

Tips for keeping kids busy and engaged need to be adapted to the child. One child may be perfectly capable of responsibly handling cameras or binoculars, while another may be certain to break them. One child may be perfectly entertained on his own collecting goodies for making “nature art”, while another requires more interpersonal interaction. One child may enjoy sitting quietly making lists, while another may need high action. 

You get where I am going with this. Know your child and engage accordingly.

For more on hiking, paddling, and camping with kids, check out Mama's 4 Tips for Keeping Kids Motivated to Hike and Paddle in the The Secret to Camping, Hiking, and Paddling with Kids Series.

Do you have tips to share for keeping kids engaged in the outdoors? 

I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below.

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