We are about to take our kids (ages four and seven) camping for the first time. They are nervous about being away from their friends and toys. We are anxious they will hate it and it will become a miserable time for all of us. What are some ideas we can use to help keep these kids from being bored while camping? Suzanne G.
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Hi Suzanne! First off, we are so glad that you are going to take your kids camping. It is a great way to spend some family time together and, at least for us, a way to show our child how to fail forward. In other words, things don’t always go as planned but we demonstrate how we can use that as a learning experience and sometimes it turns out even better than we thought. Like the time we went to a state park and didn’t hang our food up high and had visitors in the night and lost half a loaf of bread, an entire pack of hot dog buns, and most of a pack of tortillas. Yeah, we learned a lesson that trip. But the meals we made up out of what we had left were very tasty.
As for your question, here are some things that have worked for us and for other families we know to help prevent our kids from getting bored while camping.
Introduce the idea of going camping beforehand. Read some books, set up a tent in the backyard or living room, maybe cook something over a fire or on the grill, and enjoy some pretend camping in advance. Three titles that we enjoyed during the younger years are Maisy Goes Camping, A Camping Spree with Mr. Magee, and Scaredy Squirrel Goes Camping. However, there are many more titles and I could go on and on. Luckily you can probably check many of these out from your local library. Just ask your librarian for suggestions if you become overwhelmed.
You should allow each child to bring along a favorite item, using your judgment as to what might be acceptable. We do not allow our child to bring along expensive or fragile items that can easily be ruined with the introduction of a little dirt or water. He typically brings along a stuffed animal to sleep with. This helps settle him down at night since it reminds him of home. We also allow him to bring a specific number of toy cars and the case he carries them in as it amazes me how long he can entertain himself with these.
If you are camping in a location with water we have had great luck with fishing where allowed. We have also thoroughly enjoyed kayaking and the child sized kayaks are reasonably priced. However, even if you aren’t interested in investing in fishing or boating equipment, many campsites with water access have shallow areas for play. We have been to both ones with beaches and ones with waterfalls and have a blast just splashing around. Not only do they help us cool off on a hot day, they also burn off energy and help stimulate the appetite. Some of these places do require a life jacket. We bring our own from home but often times we have found loaners available when they are required.
When it comes to meals, we have found that allowing the children to cook at least part of their meal or dessert goes a long way. Roasting hot dogs and marshmallows or making biscuit cups for stuffing, known colloquially as wolf ’ems, are a lot of fun. There are so many variations on s’mores these days that you could try a different type every night for a week of camping and not get bored. As for stuffing your biscuit cups, there is fresh fruit, pudding, or pie filling options just for a start.
We also recommend allowing them to help plan some of the meals even if they won’t be doing the cooking. Some personal family favorites are pie iron pizza pockets and premade breakfast burritos. I also pack some foods we don’t eat at home for a special treat. Our guilty pleasure is the variety pack of single serving cereals to snack on in the mornings while we are building the fire up for cooking breakfast.
State or National Parks:
If you are at a state or national park, definitely check with the rangers to see what activities are going on while you are there. We have participated in salamander hunts, archery trials, scavenger hunts, canopy challenges, and gone to talks on local wildlife. It is especially fun when we get to watch one of the feedings. We have watched injured birds of prey in rehabilitation get fed as well as watching some snakes eat their weekly meal of mice. The opportunity to ask questions of the rangers and learn more about a variety of subjects, for free, is such a blessing. Plus, when kids are bored, it can provide a really nice distraction.
Additionally, depending on where you are camping there might be a state parks passport or you can purchase a national parks passport and get it stamped during your stay. We just started doing this with our state parks passports and are excited that it is challenging us to explore more of the parks around us instead of just going to the same few over and over. Tennessee also has a digital passport inside their state park application which we have started using.
If you are going on a guided hike with a ranger don’t forget to bring along some way to carry your own water. We now have hydration bladders for each of us and it is so much easier than carrying along bottles of water. In fact we have a kid sized backpack for our child to carry his own. That makes this mama happier than I can even express.
Explorer or nature kits provide a lot of ideas and you can purchase one readymade or create your own. General ones can include binoculars, compasses, whistles, magnifying glasses, nets, bug houses, identification cards, scavenger hunts, even a notebook for taking notes. However there are so many different topics to explore while out and about and in depth guides exist for all of them. Some ideas for detailed study might be local birds, local plants, or local mammals.
Another fun thing we like to do is work on scavenger hunts. We created an alphabet scavenger hunt for ourselves and try to see how many letters we can find around our campsite or while participating in activities. I also have a few other scavenger hunts available for longer trips or to share with camping neighbors whose kids might also be bored.
Treasure hunts can be educational as well, as long as we practice Leave No Trace principles. We hide something small and provide a map, or coded clues, or call out hot and cold until the item is found. As our child gets older, we are attempting to have him do the hiding in order to switch things up.
Screen Free Fun:
Another item we always pack is a deck of cards. Sometimes the weather is just not conducive to being outside of the tent/rv and with our deck of cards as well as the rules to a variety of games we can spend a couple of hours entertaining ourselves. Garbage and War are two easy games to pick up, Spoons is another favorite for a larger group. I actually bought a book with a bunch of card game rules in it to help my memory.
Alternately you could pack some board games. We are hesitant about bringing along games with lots of pieces but have no problem with chess or checkers as those pieces are larger. Which makes it harder for them to get lost. Just make sure you remember the rules or bring along a paper copy.
Depending on wifi or phone signal to look things up while there can be iffy depending on your location and provider. True story, we once camped at a site where phones on AT&T had no service while phones with Verizon did. We were required to purchase local wood for the fire (always a good idea, even when not required) and couldn’t get service to call the provider for the local wood. Luckily our site neighbor was willing to help out and we didn’t starve or have to eat only cold food. But I did learn to make backup plans for my backup plans on that trip. Other low-tech items to consider bringing would be mad libs, coloring books, puzzle books, and general reading material.
We are a geocaching family so while there might not be any geocaches at the campsite, we try to find a few on our way in or on our way home to add to the fun. Maybe your family enjoys hiking instead. Find some local hikes near your campsite and try them. Or what about a local ice cream or craft brew (for the parents) challenge? Then, as a family, make a goal: every time we go camping we are going to find a local ice cream parlor and enjoy a scoop.
Another favorite activity is kite-flying. Now, we can’t do this at every campsite. Some of them don’t have the space available amongst the trees. But some of our favorite places do have large open fields which are perfect for kite-flying. You can either bring a purchased kite or attempt building your own.
If kite-flying is not possible due to trees what about paper airplanes? You can stick with simple ones just folding a sheet of paper. Alternately you can go with specialty ones from a book such as The World Record Paper Airplane Book. We have made many of these airplanes and it always surprises me how well they fly.
In the dark:
Come dark it is all about glow sticks, head lights, and/or flashlights for us. Not only can we have a lot of fun with playing tag, it also allows for a nighttime hike. After that, if we still aren’t ready for bed, we like to play flashlight eye spy. This variation requires us to each have a flashlight. Two of us close our eyes while the third one finds something visible using their flashlight. Once they have selected their item, the other two try to find it with their flashlights.
Other ideas would be to catch (and release) fireflies, enjoy some star gazing, or even try out some night vision goggles.
If you would rather just hang out around the campfire, we have fun telling stories or playing twenty questions. We have also been known to bust out with some camping charades or a skit. Other families enjoy singalongs. We just wish our voices could carry a tune! If we are done cooking for the night, we also enjoy throwing a packet of Magical Flames on the fire and enjoy the colors.
We have a fairly strict bedtime at home so this feels like we are breaking all the rules and it is an exciting time for our child. Additionally, it is up to you if you want to allow electronics or if you want to completely unplug. We allow just a little bit of screen right before bed as a way of winding down. Again, at home we would be reading before bed, so this feels extra decadent.
Some practical items I would like you to remember: include a first aid kit, sunscreen and bug spray, along with plenty of water, and size appropriate chairs and sleeping bags. These will help with the staying safe aspect of camping. And I hope you found some ideas above to help with the having fun aspect of camping. Feel free to tag us on Instagram @campinganswer and let us know how it goes!ow it goes!