Camping Turns Kids into Nature Lovers

Forsaking ‘Angry Birds’ for Bird Songs

“Whether urban or rural, children in our state average 4.5 minutes outdoors and four hours in front of a screen every day,” says Barbara Erickson, president of The Trustees of Reservations conservation nonprofit, in Sharon, Massachusetts.

One way to disconnect kids from electronics is to go camping. Such educational, fresh air exercise is inclusive and inexpensive. David Finch, superintendent of the Dunes Edge Campground, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, suggests borrowed gear for the first outing. A backyard campout can be a rewarding trial run; each child can ask a friend to stay over and a parent and the family dog can participate.

Once kids have the hang of sleeping somewhere outside their own bedroom, consider an overnight program at a local or regional zoo. Kids get a kick out of watching the animals and learning about their behaviors, diets and habitats. The Toledo Zoo, in Ohio, offers Snooze at the Zoo, including a pizza dinner, breakfast and admission the next day. Children sleep near one of the exhibits or in a safari tent. The program teaches animal adaptations, food chains and ecosystems and meets requirements for scout badges in a fun setting.

The Irvine Nature Center, in Owings Mills, Maryland, near Baltimore, offers a rich outdoor experience. Organizers provide food, activities and camping equipment. Children first attend a fire safety class, and then help cook a meal and make s’mores. At night, participants learn how to mimic owl hoots and practice their new skills, often receiving hoots in return. Night walks sometimes include sightings of deer, bats or flying squirrels, while morning walks showcase groundhogs and birds.

“It’s not how fast and how far you go, it’s what you see, smell, touch and listen to along the way. You might move only five feet in 15 minutes, but what you see and discuss will help children grow into respectful explorers and lifelong campers. Take photos and bring a journal; a child’s adventures are the best keepsakes.”
~ Stephanie Rach, founder of the Let’s Go Chipper play-based learning program, in Corte Madera, CA

Kid campingJean Gazis, with the women’s and girls’ rights nonprofit Legal Momentum, in Brooklyn, New York, observes, “It’s easier to camp with small, even tiny, children, than with older kids. Babies are portable.” She recalls taking her 7-week-old infant along and nostalgically comments, “Now that the kids are 11 and 14, they don’t have as much free time.”

Drive-up camping in a state park that offers facilities and planned activities sets up a good time. Gazis feels that a destination four hours away is the limit for car trips with small children. She advises giving everyone duties. “My young son once had a great time digging a ditch around the tent when it began to rain,” she recalls. “He kept the sleeping bags dry and got to play in the mud.”

Jeff Alt, of Cincinnati, Ohio, author of Get Your Kids Hiking, suggests, “Start them young and keep it fun. Get the kids involved in the planning. My kids have gone along since they were born. We stayed at a lodge when they were small because little trekkers have a lot of gear. During the day we were out in the park exploring, always keeping in mind that kids tire out fast.” His mandatory equipment includes good walking shoes, sunscreen and bug spray. Adhering to such rules as never leave the trail or wander off and don’t pick flowers or touch animals is non-negotiable.

Stephanie Wear, a biologist for The Nature Conservancy, working in Beaufort, South Carolina, has found that it’s easy to make the experience lively. “We like to do observational scavenger hunts—find the flower, the mushroom or the tree that looks like a picture and make a list of what you see. Getting out in nature sharpens observation skills, boosts creativity and improves physical and mental health,” she says. Wear notes that her kids have listed 70 forms of life in the family’s backyard alone. Visit a local park or to take part in more activities and explore different locations. “Nature presents a great parenting tool,” she remarks.

Summertime camping helps every member of the family unplug, unwind and wander along new paths.

Avery Mack is a freelance writer in St. Louis, MO. Connect via


Kids camping gear backpackBudget Gear

If family members enjoy their initial camping experiences, it’s time to invest in gear. Goodwill Industries and other thrift stores may have some items, although finding what’s needed will be a hit-ormiss endeavor. Note that sleeping bags at thrifts will most likely be for indoor use only—not waterproofed or suitable for colder weather. Military surplus stores are a better bet.

Check these sites for bargains or discounted prices:

Kids camping gear canteenThrift shops often have inexpensive flatware and plastic/reusable dishes (cuts paper waste at the campsite), as well as clothing that carefree kids won’t have to worry about ruining; pick gender-neutral colors so T-shirts can be passed down or shared.

When packing, give each child a personally labeled travel container with clothing, toothbrush and other essentials, and a current checklist to be sure each item is packed (and repacked at camp). Include other items of their choosing but if any of them don’t fit in, they don’t go along.

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