Forging Outdoor Summer Fun as a Family

By Diane Turner Maller

I knew I was doing something right when my eight-year old daughter exclaimed, “I love camping!” Grinning wide through a mouthful of pancakes, she was the most contented camper who ever dined at the tiny table of our weathered tent-trailer.

From the beginning of my parenting journey, I was very conscious about wanting to share similar camping experiences with my children that I had experienced while growing up. My childhood perspective saw that, at camp, the basics of life were fulfilled and life felt unencumbered. Some of the most vivid and treasured memories from my childhood come from our summer camping trips.

Not everyone had the same outdoor camping experiences that we did. By the time my happy camper was in high school, she reported that many of her friends had never been camping. Richard Louv’s landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, documents the dramatic change in modern childhood that has resulted in children spending less and less time outdoors. Luckily, a growing awareness of the developmental need for children to experience a connection to nature has spurred widespread implementation of programs that aim to support children and families with opportunities to get outdoors and to increase visits to national and state parks.

What if you didn’t grow up camping? You may not have the gear stocked and ready for the next outing. Reservations ought to be made and precautions considered before you are ready to pack up the car.
Get-away time is limited and sending your kids to camp is growing as an option. However, if you opt to give it a try, you and your kids could grow to love camping too.

CHOOSE FROM ABUNDANT CAMPING CHOICES. These days you can choose campgrounds that offer resort like amenities, even Wi-Fi. You can camp in your own backyard. When you are ready to experience wilderness, more primitive accommodations are waiting to be discovered.

Once you have your gear together, getting to know your state parks is a good place to start. There is probably one close to you that is drivable and easy to find. Well established facilities in State Parks normally provide shelters, bathrooms, trash disposal, and access to clean water. The presence of equipped and experienced park staff gives support to your camping efforts and peace of mind when you are away from home.

SLOW DOWN When you arrive at the best location for your family; camping offers a chance to adjust your pace. No calendars with appointments to keep. Breathing outdoor air is the first step in releasing accumulated stress from worries at home. Shift your perspective and notice what is unique and beautiful in your temporary landscape.

CREATE A SIMPLER LIFE AT CAMP. The basic rhythms of meal times, planned or spontaneous activities and evening time around the camp fire are enough to structure your day. Young children are often happy to explore the microcosm of nature near a shrub, in a puddle, or under a tree.

Any early birds in your family can revel in a sunrise while everyone else sleeps peacefully in the tent. Watching the sun go down as a family offers an opportunity to appreciate an everyday occurrence that we often miss or take for granted in our day to day life.

CONNECT TO NATURE. When home is decorated, edged, mowed, and landscaped; we lose track of nature’s natural tendencies. National and State parks that offer camping are all about preserving native vegetation particular to the region.

Whether high desert, forest, meadow, or coast line; your chosen campground offers an environment ready to explore. Guided nature walks and evening talks may be provided. Nature needs to be experienced first-hand by little and big hands. Use all of your senses.

DEVELOP OUTDOOR AND WILDERNESS SKILLS. Backyard camping is a good way to practice setting up the tent. You may also want to test the pad or air mattress you plan to sleep on. Do you know how to attach propane bottles to the camp stove?

Building a ten essentials pack can engage kids in learning basic outdoor skills. A compass, first aid kit, plastic whistle, space blanket, and nutrition bars are some of the items to include. Older children will need guidance in learning to handle fire starting materials. All children can carry a flashlight.

TRANSPLANT A COMMUNITY FOR A WEEK. Planning a campout to accommodate a community of families that play together, ride bicycles together, or go to school together can create an opportunity to experience an intentional village for a time. Living next door, campsite to campsite, tent to tent, allows children to interact and play all through the day in a setting that differs dramatically from the car-driven routine at home. Adults may get to have conversations with one another at camp that there had not previously been time for. At least one large potluck meal at a central campsite makes for a festive feeling that helps strengthen the sense of community.

LEARN SOME HISTORY AND GEOLOGY. Campgrounds are often located near natural areas that feature museums and educational displays available to the public. Investigate these places along the route to your camp destination. You may be amazed by the colorful characters who occupied the territory before you. Watch films that detail hundreds of years of geological transformation.

MISHAPS MAKE FOR FUN STORYTELLING AROUND THE CAMPFIRE. Campfire time offers opportunity to recount the adventures or misadventures of the day. Embellishments are allowed and all members of the family can contribute. Watching the flames dance in the darkness stirs our sensibilities and has the power to unite family members in lasting and memorable ways.

FORM TRADITIONS OVER TIME. When you have gone on enough camping trips, favorite camp spots become apparent. Think of all the memories that could be formed over many years of visiting the same campground or locale. Each return visit feels fresh and new; yet, the familiar landmarks, the places to watch the sunset, the familiar trails that meander up the hill all form an imprint that steadily builds on previous visits. A camping tradition that you start with your family may very well be carried on by your children.

From every trip, bring back the best experiences from camping to everyday life at home. There will be gear to put away, clothes to wash, moments to remember, and stories to tell. The evening sunset at home beckons weary campers for yet another view.

Resources for Campers:
• American Park Network, Comprehensive source for researching national parks and public lands.
• Reserve America, Source for finding and reserving campgrounds and cabins in the United States.
• Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP), Guide for finding parks around the world along with practical camping advice.
• National Outdoor Retailers: Campmor,; REI,
• Leave No Trace (LNT), Education courses and publications to guide Leave No Trace ethics in the outdoors.
• Ultimate Camp Resource, Source for campfire songs, stories, and skits.


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