What Should We Do for Fun?
I asked every parent I talked to, how do you keep your kids occupied in camp?
Henk Jr. answered immediately, "Oh, that's easy. Just invite another family with kids to go with you." The children enjoy each other's company so much, he said, that they don't need toys, games, or planned activities to keep them happy. The other bonus is for the parents, who gain some adult companionship. Randy agreed. When there are other children around, he said, there is much less need for toys brought from home. Jeannie had a similar response. She said that often while her husband fished, she walked through the campground looking for kids the same age as Christine, so they could play together.
But while playing with other kids is fun, spending special time with parents, especially for younger children, is also important. Once your camp is set up, or on the second day of your stay, you can begin helping your children create their own fun, using the resources and materials of your campground. Help them learn about and appreciate the outdoors and the natural wonders that brought you to the special place where you are camping.
You may even wish to create a family record of your trip, by writing a journal together of what you did. Your younger children who aren't writing yet can dictate what they want you to write for them, and the kids can illustrate the journal by drawing pictures. If you have a camera—film, digital, or video—you can make a photo documentary of your trip. This project could occupy a quiet time after lunch or dinner, or while sitting around the campfire. Bring a notebook, paper, pens, and colored pencils to camp, so you are prepared.
The students who wrote essays about camping for me did a lot of hiking and swimming and building forts and sand castles and rafts and sailboats. In my local library, I found many books with great suggestions for outdoor fun and activities in nature for kids. My favorite was The Kids Nature Book by Susan Milord. For convenience, I have grouped the ideas I collected into themes: things to do near water, things to do in the woods, learning about nature, things to do at night, art in camp, games and toys from home, and ranger-organized activities.
Things to Do Near Water
If you are camping near water, use that as your playground. If you are at a beach, children can spend many hours with found objects—collecting shells, stones, bits of glass polished by the sea, seaweed, or driftwood in funny shapes. Filling and emptying a bucket of sand or water is fun. Older children, with their parents' help, can build water courses or sand castles or driftwood forts. It's fun to bury someone in sand, if that person doesn't mind. You can also make a sculpture of a person lying down, and give it eyes and buttons made of shells or stones.
If you're camping at an ocean beach, or at a lake big enough to have tides, you can study the high and the low tides. Look for a line along the beach that shows the last highest tide, and examine the debris that the water left behind. If you're at the beach at high tide, mark the highest point with a stick driven into the sand or a line of rocks or shells; return later in the day to see how the tide is ebbing. (You can do a reversal, too. Mark the low tide, and then come back to see how the rising tide has covered your marker.) If your kids are old enough to read a tide table, pick one up before you get to camp and teach your kids how to use it.
Rocks mixed with water equals fun. I remember camping with my grandchildren near a stream in Mt. Rainier National Park. They filled a small pail with rocks on one side of the stream, crossed the water on a flattened log, and dumped the rocks on the other side of the stream, over and over again.
Years earlier, my kids built sailboats by using a twig "mast" to fasten a leaf to a flat piece of bark. We poked a hole in the bark so the twig would stand up; then we threaded a leaf through the twig to make a "sail." We sailed our boats down little streams or launched them on lakes to see how far they would go.
Sometimes we dropped a stick off the upstream side of a bridge and ran to the other side to see how fast it came through. If someone in your party knows how to skip rocks, that is a challenging skill to pass on to the next generation.
Susan Milord's book included instructions for making an underwater viewer: You need a half-gallon milk carton, clear plastic wrap, and a rubber band or some tape. Cut the top and the bottom off the milk carton. Stretch the plastic wrap over the bottom of the carton, and use the rubber band or the tape to hold it tightly in place. Lower the viewer into the water and put your face in the open end of the carton. The view you get of the lake or stream bottom is the same view you would get through a snorkeler's mask, but you don't get your face wet. If you're not planning to bring cartons of milk or juice to camp, making the viewer could be an at-home project to get the kids excited about going camping.
Things to Do in the Woods
A hike in the woods is a fun activity for kids if it's not too long or boring. I didn't say "not too hard." A hike that involves some kind of challenge, like scrambling up a trail on rocks and roots, or stepping through a patch of mud on planks or rocks, is more entertaining than walking on a simple trail. Just walking on a trail can be made to be absorbing, especially for small children, who will find a lot to see on a brief hike. They see flowers and insects and rocks, down at their level, which adults might overlook.
Turning a rock over will reveal all sorts of interesting life. If you are hiking in snake country, choose the rock carefully. Find one in a clear space that is not surrounded by thick greenery. An adult should tap gently around the rock, to be sure that it isn't home to a rattlesnake.
Carry a magnifying glass so you can look at the underside of leaves and ferns, or study the track of ants going to and from their ant hill. Look up in the trees for birds' nests; use binoculars to really see up in the trees. Look at the birds, too. How many different kinds of birds can you see? What colors are they?
Teach your child that flowers and leaves that are attached to a plant should be left alone, but rocks and cones and fallen leaves can be collected. A rock that's turned over should be turned back; the underside is home to many creatures. If a small child has a little bag, he or she can collect all sorts of fascinating things to bring back to your campsite, where they can be laid out in a "museum." At the end of your stay in camp, scatter the collection so the next child who camps in that space can start anew.
Don't expect your child to cover great distances on first hikes. For longer hikes, Randy keeps his 6-year-old daughter going with "power pills," their name for Skittles or M&Ms. Small candies and raisins make good incentives for young hikers. To avoid choking accidents, come to a complete stop for these treats, and be sure they have been swallowed before you move on.
Hiking isn't the only thing to do in the woods. Two Sarahs I know love climbing trees. When I met Isbela and Oscar at a US Forest Service camp, they were up in a big tree near their campsite.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication