Dave took his young son Connor camping for the first time on the Washington coast in their Westfalia long before his 1st birthday.
Years later as a family of five, we made our first few camping test runs in the backyard, easing our kids into sleeping under the stars. OK, the 3-year-old insisted on going inside shortly after dark. She has turned out to be our #1 camper!
Our first real family outing was to the Oregon coast. Trips to the Pacific Northwest mountains and coasts followed. After relocating to Canada, camping along the forests, lakes, and rivers of Ontario resumed. As the kids have gotten older and gone in their own directions we find that it’s more often just the two of us. The oldest and youngest, 25 and 18, still couldn’t resist the camping call this summer, though, and joined us at our favourite family destination.
Camping is a great way to teach your kids skills that will last a lifetime, and not just how to build a campfire.
#1 Appreciation for Outdoors
There is nothing as freeing as a wide open space and the smaller you are, the bigger it is. Beaches and grassy fields are wonderful places for kids to run around and let their spirits soar. Fly a kite, throw a ball, splash in water, dig in the sand. Or get out in a canoe and fish. These are all great activities no matter how old the kids are.
Trails through forests, marshes, meadows, and rocky outcroppings have all kinds of hidden delights like grasshoppers, frogs, snakes, and turtles. Many parks offer nature activities for kids that help them explore all the wonderful plants and animals right in front of them.
Even from your campsite your kids will encounter birds, bugs, critters, and plants. After dark, if you’re lucky, they can count the starts, watch a meteor shower, or see the fireflies flashing in the air.
And if stormy weather rolls in, your kids can have fun watching the clouds fill the sky, the sound of rain on a tent, wind against a trailer, the smell of wet ground and forest, and splashing through mud puddles.
#2 Respect for the Outdoors
Nature is beautiful but also filled with hazards. One of the first things to teach your kids is how to identify plants that can be hazardous. Leaves of Three, Let Them Be! We’ve had our share of run-ins with poison ivy, bug bites & stings, scrapes, and bruises. Don’t let your kids fear these things. Teach them, and yourself, how to be vigilant. Most parks have information guides and posters to help. Make sure you’re well stocked with bug spray and first aid supplies.
Some parks might experience bear activity but regular visitors will almost always include raccoons, skunks, chipmunks, and squirrels. Depending on where you are, other critters will surely slink around in the bushes. These animals may be cute, but their bites are not so make sure your kids understand that they are not pets. Don’t Feed The Animals! They can wreak untold damage on your campsite. And if you’re in bear country, educate everyone about how to deal with a bear encounter.
#3 Respect for Others
When you are camping, you’re kids not only have to get along with their family, just like at home, but will have to be mindful of other campers. Teach your kids camping etiquette (many adults could use a refresher, too!).
Let your kids run around all day long but remind them to not invade others’ space. Compare it to running through some one else’s yard. And as the sun goes down, so does the noise. Campfires are a great way to set the scene for bedtime and having a story or two at the ready helps everyone settle.
Keep It Clean! Upon arriving at a campsite we always handed our kids bags and had them pick up garbage, even small things like bread ties and plastic straw wrappers. Those are choking hazards for small children and animals. We’ve taught them to always clean up after themselves so we don’t attract unwanted varmints. Likewise, the same goes for the beach, trails, and picnic sites. The kids do it once again when we leave while we finish packing up our gear. Leave it cleaner than you found it.
In shared public areas like water taps, toilets and washrooms, remind kids to be respectful of others privacy. We share these spaces to do private business so it’s a good life lesson to teach your kids that everyone has a personal “bubble”. Don’t invade it, and don’t let anyone invade yours. And again, clean up after yourself.
#4 Respect for Nature
This should be a no-brainer, but it comes up all the time. From the very beginning let your kids know that it’s hurts Nature if you chop down trees in the park and pick up tree-fall. Animals need all of that to build their own nests. Stay on marked trails so you don’t trample over their homes. If you tie something to a tree, make sure to take it down when you’re done so you don’t choke its bark as it grows. There is a ton of fun to be had without being destructive. Be kind to Nature and we’ll all get to enjoy it for years to come.
#5 Building a Campsite
The real fun begins at the campsite. Well, set-up and break-down is often not only tedious but stressful for everyone. Some snacks and drinks at the ready always came in handy for us. Still does!
Even a little child can help set up camp by unrolling a sleeping bag and arranging their pillows and toys. Unfolding camp chairs and picnic table clothes do double duty keeping kids busy and helping parents. When they’re a little older, they can learn to set up their own tent, a momentous time for us grown-ups!
Kids can participate in making meals around a campfire and help with washing dishes, especially fun if you do it outside and a little water splashing might be involved.
Building a campfire is a skill that will last a lifetime! (So is doing laundry, but that’s not nearly as fun). We started with the easy stuff and worked up: what to use to light a fire, how to best stack the wood, and how to safely chop wood with an axe & hatchet. It should be noted that being safe around a lit fire and HOW TO PUT A FIRE OUT WHEN YOU’RE DONE are ongoing reminders.
Don’t underestimate your kids and build their skill levels with their age. Teach them how to safely change the propane canister on a portable stove or lantern, what to do to maintain a trailer or camping gear, put out an awning, store food properly, how to step into a kayak or canoe, first aid, and what to do in an emergency. These things can be fun, not chores, if you let them happen instead of make them happen.
Our middle child, as it turns out, hated camping. We didn’t learn this until he was a teenager, and by then, old enough to stay home. We felt terrible that for years we’d subjected him to something he didn’t enjoy. Not everyone is born to camp. Funny enough, now well-entrenched in university, he expressed interest this summer in camping, perhaps with some friends. Good thing we have held onto all our gear through the years! We shouldn’t be surprised. He’s a good cook, loves cycling, can chop wood, and builds a mean campfire.
Skills for life!