Camping (especially with kids) takes a lot of effort, but the payoff is huge. Not only does everyone benefit from the mental break a loosely planned schedule allows, but there are nearly endless ways to experience new things.
A natural setting offers a dynamic, ever-changing canvas for your children to explore and observe, and this will keep them occupied most of the time. Still, it pays to be prepared by having a "go-to" bag of tricks. Most children go at full speed -- all day. Planning a few activities will keep them occupied, engaged and free from the "I'm bored" refrain. Plus, staying active in the great outdoors is a great way to strengthen family ties. From card games to geocaching, our guide's full of great ways to have fun.
Break Out the Board Games
Favorite board games, ranging from Monopoly to Scrabble, are an ideal way to while away the hours. Camping is a great time to introduce new favorites, too. The Camp board game, for example, pits children and parents against each other as they identify animals and learn other outdoor facts.
Being together as a family doesn't mean providing constant entertainment, though. Pack some blank notebooks and pencils, and encourage your children to sketch or write during designated quiet time. A bottle of craft clue can secure a few found objects like leaves or twigs to a page, and voilà! A back-to-nature scrapbook.
If you already feel like you've maxed out your gear allotment, pack a few space-conserving card games like Uno. Or, play thinking games like "I Spy" that don't require any cargo room at all.
Go Take a Hike
Walking the trails is a great way to get a closer look at nature, regardless of a child's age. Even toddlers can explore new habitats, especially on short easy-to-manage trails that loop back to their starting points. Pack a picnic lunch and plenty of water for your trek, and encourage young trail hands to identify animal tracks, rocks or nearby birds. Spend some family time perusing guide books or stop by the park's visitor center before hiking; your child will have a better idea of what animals live in the wild, and how to spot them.
For older children up for a longer hike, offer a hands-on way to practice map-reading skills. The added allure of compass-driven navigation can make the miles pass quickly. Although you'll still want to steer clear of steep and arduous trails, older children usually embrace the challenge afforded by slightly rugged terrains.
Play Nature-centric Games
You're face-to-face with nature, so it only makes sense to make the most of it. And what better way than with a scavenger hunt? Make a list of treasures to find -- all with different colors, shapes and sizes -- and go on a nature walk full of discoveries. Rocks of a certain hue or leaves of a specific shape are sure winners, but consider adding a few long shots to your list, like spotting a woodpecker or finding an ant hill.
For a twist on an old standby, try playing the alphabet game as you relax by the tent or hike along a trail. The idea is to find a natural object that starts with each letter of the alphabet. The trick is that you can only win this game by finding objects in the correct alphabet order. For a modern variation, give each child a disposable digital camera so they can take photographs of objects that start with the letters A through Z.
A low-tech way to create mementoes without harming the environment is to make rubbings of found objects. Place a leaf with the vein side facing skyward, then put a piece of paper over it and rub it with a crayon until a lifelike sketch of the leaf appears.
Or take a noisier approach and belt out a few campfire tunes, like the ones we suggest on the next page.
If you have visions of singing a good ol' campfire tune, you're definitely on the right track. But don't stop there. Whistle while you gather firewood, hum as you hike or belt out a show tune during dinner. It doesn't really matter what you sing. What matters is that you're modeling a love for music to your children. Researchers have discovered all kinds of good things music does for the body and mind. Depending on tempo, music has the ability to capture attention or to slow heart rates. And when it comes to camping, it can offer a lot of entertainment.
If you know how to play the acoustic guitar, strum along as the children sing. Or take advantage of a quiet environment away from distractions and learn to play. Most campfire songs are structured around just a few simple cords, anyway. If you'd rather sing a cappella, no worries. There are plenty of catchy campfire tunes like "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" or "The Ants Go Marching." If you can't remember the lyrics, a quick YouTube search before you leave home should prompt your memory.
Build a Campfire
Learning how to safely build a campfire satisfies a child's natural curiosity and teaches them an important survival skill. Toddlers and preschoolers can help by gathering kindling and twigs, as long as they're supervised and don't get too far from camp. Better still, they can practice starting their own campfires using cereal and marshmallows for a fire ring, and then making a "fire" from shredded coconut topped with stick pretzels, and then candy corn.
Older children can get closer to the action. Have them start by removing combustible items (like sticks, grass and leaves) from a 6- to 10-foot (1.8- to 3- meter) circle of ground and then show them how to dig a shallow pit in the center. After lining the pit with rocks, demonstrate how to layer tinder (using some of those combustible items they cleared) and small twigs. Stack larger branches and logs nearby, along with a pail of water.
Adults can then use matches or another fire-starting device to ignite the tinder, which should be piled loosely to allow adequate ventilation. Steer clear of combustible liquids, like lighter fluid, because it can turn your tiny campfire into a roaring bonfire. The best part of a campfire is using it to make sticky treats with a modern twist. It's all on the next page.
Since the first published recipe for s'mores appeared in the 1927 Girl Scout handbook, these sticky treats have become a mainstay of campfire menus. S'mores -- fire-roasted marshmallows and chocolate bars sandwiched between graham cracker squares -- are a classic, so be sure to pack supplies for your camping trip.
Children will like being able to toast their own marshmallows on sticks (young children still need supervision so a flaming marshmallow doesn't become a flying missile). And, they'll especially like to create their own variations. For a twist, try adding a smattering of peanut butter to the graham crackers before adding a marshmallow and the chocolate squares. Or, swap the milk chocolate candy bar for chocolate-covered mint patties. A simpler (and sometimes less expensive) alternative is to use chocolate-covered cookies in place of the graham crackers and candy bars.
Regardless of the recipe your children come up with, one thing's for sure: Making s'mores is as much fun as eating them.
We're not talking a serious game of flag football here, just a little back-and-forth toss of the ball. In fact, nearly any type of ball will do. Packing a baseball and a catcher's mitt, a large kickball or even a Frisbee, is all you need for a few minutes of uninterrupted fun. Be sure to set a few ground rules about chasing balls, especially if you're playing catch with younger children. The balls could go into an area of high grass or near a roadway; one is prone to unexpected creatures like snakes, the other to inattentive drivers.
If you suspect your children will go through Wii withdrawal as they experience a few unplugged days in the great outdoors, take some toys. Even if they complain at first, after a while they're sure to be tempted to drive plastic dump trucks through mud puddles or pretend to bake dirt pies with a discarded serving spoon and bowl. Likewise, most children will spend hours playing with bubbles and a bubble wand. They can even take waterproof toys on a canoe ride. We'll explain, next.
Paddle a Canoe
Taking a slow boat to nowhere is a wonderful way to while away an afternoon. A large canoe (some reach up to 17 feet or 5 meters) offers a roomy ride and some are outfitted with canoe chairs perfectly sized for children. School-age children can help paddle, while toddlers can play with waterproof toys. In fact, tying a toy to a string and dangling it in moving water can be quite entertaining. Don't be surprised if younger children nod off, soothed by the gentle motion and sounds of the water.
Be sure everyone wears a life jacket; in fact, it's a good idea to buy a perfectly fitting life jacket for your children before you go camping, and then let them practice wearing it in a swimming pool. If they know how to float and how a lifejacket feels, it will be easier to handle an accidental capsize. If you'd like an adventure on dry land instead, try a high-tech game of hide-and-seek like the one we propose, next.
Find a Geocache
If your children love a good Easter egg hunt, then they'll love the high-tech fun of a global game of hide-and-seek known as geocaching. To begin, register at a geocaching website and discover the exact latitude and longitude of a hidden cache of "treasure" placed on public property. Geocaches are hidden across the globe, so it's likely there will be one near your camping or hiking destination. Then, using a handheld GPS (global positioning system) to navigate, as well as a trail map, search for the cache, which is usually a trinket or two stored in a container with a logbook for recording who found it. Replace the treasure with one of your own devising for the next person to find.
It's exciting for children to find the actual cache, but it's even more exciting to look for it. If the idea's a keeper, you could always look up additional geocache locations on your camping trip or make the searches part of a daylong outing that includes a hike and a picnic.
Perhaps the best thing about camping with your children is the ability to reconnect, especially if you insist on a digital sabbatical. Rather than (OMG) texting their pals or mastering the next level on a Nintendo DS game, have them stow the electronics. Don't expect older children to embrace this idea with smiling faces and chipper attitudes -- or to understand why it's so important. Instead, fill their days with hands-on activities that offer a chance to work together. Busy hands often prompt the best conversations, so be ready to listen. And, if there's a lull in conversation, you can always entertain by relating a story from your youth or sharing something a grandparent once told you.
Top off the day's activities by telling stories around the campfire. Give everyone a chance to weave a tale, or take the lead role and spin one of your own. Don't know any campfire stories? Web sites like Ultimate Camp Resource detail campfire tales by genre, from Native American legends to urban lore. Remember, your stories -- like your camping trip -- don't have to be perfect. You'll have lots of stories to tell based on the memories you create, starting right now.
HowStuffWorks looks at the popularity of hiking in the U.S.
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