I remember the first time my husband suggested that we take our oldest boy camping. I was not a camping enthusiast, but I was excited at the idea of getting to spend time with my husband and my son, disconnected from our screens. When we arrived at our campsite, my son was thrilled to run around outdoors, picking up sticks and stones, wading in the water, and digging holes in the dirt. But it wasn’t long until he was bored and cranky, turning my sweet dream of a fun nature-filled break into a nightmare of excessive whining and confusion. I swore that day that if I ever went camping again, I would make sure I had an “itinerary,” which brings me to my first of twenty tips to make camping with your family fun.
1 – Plan your day from sun up to sun down.
I schedule everything from paid activities like water skiing, to unpaid adventures, nap times, and bed times for our camping trips. This keeps everybody sane and makes for easy transitions, since everyone knows when we are ending one activity, and what the next activity is. It leaves little room for whining. If it’s on the itinerary, it’s real and it’s a done deal.
2 – Play flashlight tag.
When I was a child, I would go to a camp every summer for a week and we always played flashlight tag. I was so excited to pass this onto my kids, and they love it! All you need is a flashlight and yourselves. Make sure that you set clear boundaries so that you don’t lose children to the wilderness in the middle of the night.
3 – Roast s’mores and hot dogs.
Roasting S’Mores and Hot Dogs over an open fire is a rite of passage in my family. After constantly telling the children not to play with fire or eat so much sugar, it is nice to let them indulge by simultaneously playing with fire and eating excessive amounts of sugar! Moms get tired of fighting, too, you know. Just make sure that you don’t leave the kids unattended with the fire. I know, it’s a no-brainer, but it has to be said.
4 – Teach them a new skill.
On one trip, my husband taught my son to fish (or at least tried to). On another trip, I taught my niece to play a song on guitar. Yet another time, we taught the kids how to pitch their own tent. When you’re free from distractions, it’s much easier to focus on trying something new.
5 – Go on a scavenger hunt.
Plan an age-appropriate scavenger hunt for the whole family. Make sure that it is location specific, so that you can find the right items. For example, you don’t want to send kids off looking for cacti in the middle of the forest. If we have a large family camping trip, I like to separate into teams and see who can find all the items the fastest.
6 – Stargaze.
Stargazing is a great way to get to know your child’s mind. Lay back on a blanket and look up at the stars. Ask them to tell you what they see, if they notice any shapes or pictures. You’d be surprised what kind of answers you get. Once, my son told me he could see his grandpa up there. If you are familiar with your constellations, you can also use this as a teaching moment and show your children where the constellations are.
7 – Enforce nap times and bed times.
Ok, so this is more for your sanity than theirs, but it had to be said. I know in our family we have a tendency to throw structure and routine to the wind when we are on vacation, traveling, or camping. It seems easier to live without structure than to try to enforce a normal structure in a not-so-normal place. But trust me when I say that enforcing your nap and bed times will make everyone happier. You all will have so much more fun when everyone rests well.
8 – Loosen the reins a bit.
I know, I know. I just got done telling you not to lose all structure. And you shouldn’t. But do try to give them a bit more freedom to make their own decisions. One of the best parts of being out with nature is that there are no physical barriers or limits to your exploration. Don’t inhibit their adventures. They will thank you for it later.
9 – Create a nature kit.
This is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done with smaller kids. I bring along a metal lunchbox with some worksheets, a jar, a magnifying glass, a child-size flashlight and binoculars, a notebook and pen, and a net. This gives us a variety of guided and independent activities that we can complete to really get to know the nature around us. You can even buy nature exploration kits for your older kids who might want something more advanced.
10 – Create a leaf print book.
All you need for this is a large stamp pad, a blank journal (preferably one without lines), and your imagination or your knowledge of trees. This can be as informative as you like. For younger kids, we just collect leaves and then press them into the stamp pad and onto the page. For older kids, you can make this educational by having them identify what type of tree leaf it is and write about the tree below the leaf print. For an even more advanced experience, try collecting leaves and then take them home to do a preserved leaves book.
11 – Encourage quiet times.
This is really for your sanity. Bring along composition books, reading books, or other quiet time activities. Encourage (see: force) your children to take this time to enjoy nature quietly. This quiet time also frees up time for you to tend to yourself, or whatever else needs tending to. Use it to prepare for your next meal, tidy up your camping area, or plan your next activity.
12 – Make shadow puppets on the tent.
This one is just pure fun. To be fair, it doesn’t last long with my kids, but it is fun while it lasts. Bonus points if you create and bring paper puppets so that you can tell a full story on the “wall” of your tent.
13 – Sing around the campfire.
If you can play the guitar, bring it along. If not, a cappella singing is all the rage. Try singing sounds in a round. Better yet, try writing your own songs! You never know, a burgeoning star may be among you!
14 – Play “I’m Going Camping” game.
This game is a classic road trip game, but it makes for a nice time-consuming game when your kids are extra bored. You may refer to this game as “I’m Going Camping” or “I’m Going on a Safari” and I’m sure there are more variations. Regardless of what you call it, the premise is simple. One person starts and says “I’m going camping and I’m bringing an Apple” or some other word that begins in A. The next person will then have to say “I’m going camping and I’m bringing an apple, and a book” or another word that ends in B. You do this all the way through to Z or until someone can’t remember what all the words were.
15 – Play water tag with water guns.
Think laser tag, now turn it into water tag. You’re welcome.
16 – Do yoga.
Kids yoga is so much fun and it helps expend extra energy that kids might have. There are all kinds of ways that kids benefit from doing yoga, even very early ages. Combine these benefits with the benefits of spending time outdoors and you can see why this is a go-to for our family. Now, I’m not very good at yoga. The good news is, your kids don’t care if you’re good at it. Just plan some poses and get going.
17 – Play Simon Says.
I like to play Simon Says. It reinforces good listening skills in children. What’s not to love? Another favorite is Red Light Green Light, which also reinforces listening skills.
18 – Pack good snacks.
You know what I’m talking about. Well fed kids are happy kids. You don’t want to be on that hiking tour and start hearing the incessant whine of “I’m huuuuungry.” What’s worse, at least with my kids, is that the hungrier they get, the more they only want convenience foods like chicken nuggets and french fries (things that obviously aren’t readily available while camping. Just make sure you have good non-perishable snacks on hand. It makes the difference between a good and bad day.
19 – Bring sunscreen, bug spray, and benadryl.
The first two are the basics, but you may not have thought of benadryl. And it is so important. It can help with mild to moderate reactions that children may have to bugs or other allergens that are found in the great outdoors. If you have a child who is ultra-prone to reactions, then you probably never leave the house without an EpiPen. But for the rest of us, it can be easy to forget how reactive small bodies are. Plus, benadryl has the added benefit of making kids sleepy.
20 – Tell scary stories.
If you are camping with older kids, tell scary stories. They will appreciate the spooks and frights in the late night. Or maybe they will just roll their eyes at you, but that’s a little funny, too.