Camping with little kids requires lots of patience as you introduce them to all of the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and safety hazards of the great outdoors. Depending on the temperament of any given young child camping can be a success or a disaster. One way to prepare little kids for a real camping trip or to camp without too much hassle is to have a backyard campout. It can be as easy as rolling out a sleeping bag, or with a little preparation, it can be almost like the real thing.
The nice thing about camping in your own backyard is that you can either cook outdoors or in the kitchen. You can also take advantage of indoor plumbing. In the event your little ones become uncomfortable they can always go back inside the house to the cozy comfort of their own rooms and their own bed. :) Remember, this is just a fun exploration of the night time sights and sounds in the backyard, and for some of you -- a practice-run for what a real camping trip might hold in store for your family. Here are some backyard camping ideas...
To prepare your campers read books about camping. Here are some suggestions that preschoolers will enjoy:
- Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping - by Peggy Parish [ages 4-8]
- Camping Out (Little Critter First Readers) - by Mercer Mayer [ages 4-8]
- Maisy Goes Camping: A Maisy First Experience Book - by Lucy Cousins [ages 4-8]
- Bailey Goes Camping - by Kevin Henkes [ages 2-6]
- Fred and Ted Go Camping - by Peter Anthony Eastman [ages 2-6]
- Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems - by Kristine O'Connell George [ages 4-8]
- Camping Day! - by Patricia Lakin [ages 4-8]
- Usborne Farmyard Tales Camping Out (Farmyard Tales Readers) - by Heather Amery [baby-3]
- Sleeping In a Sack: Camping Activities for Kids - by Linda White [ages 4-8]
- What Camping Can Teach Us: Life's Lessons Learned From The Great Outdoors [ages 4-8]
- When We Go Camping - by Margriet Ruurs [ages 4-8]
- Curious George Goes Camping - by H.A. Rey [ages 4-8]
- S Is for S'mores: A Camping Alphabet (Sleeping Bear Alphabets) - by Helen Foster James [ages 4-8]
Pitch A Tent!
If you have a tent or can borrow one -- pitch it in the backyard. Many camping stores sell inexpensive kids' tents that instantly assemble with a flick of the wrist -- and you don't even have to stake them into the ground. Larger family tents are generally more expensive, but it is possible to rent a tent.
Set up the tent for a week so the kids can play in it and nap/sleep in it. Alternatively, you can make a tent out of a table -- just drape sheets over it. Help the kids put their sleeping bags inside the tent. Parents may want to set up an AeroBed or inflatable mattress inside the tent for maximum comfort.
Make A Campfire!
You don't have to make a real campfire in your backyard, you can make a pretend campfire. Use Lincoln Logs or paper towel tubes for logs and crumple and stuff yellow, red and orange tissue paper in and around them to simulate the flames of a campfire. Stash a glowing flashlight or glow stick chemical lights under the "logs." Encircle it all with a few rocks and you've got a faux campfire.
For information on campfire safety and preventing forest fires visit Smokey The Bear's website for kids. You'll find good tips in simple language your children will understand. There are games and activities at the site too -- including coloring pages that younger children may enjoy.
Use Camping Gear!
Your kids will love to use camping gear -- everything from canteens and mess kits to lanterns and compasses. If you don't have camping gear, see if you can borrow some. You can purchase camp gear from outdoor sporting goods stores and you can usually get good buys at army surplus stores.
Listen for Nature Sounds
Tell the kids to be very quiet and try to identify the sounds they hear at night. In your backyard campsite you might hear crickets, frogs, dogs barking, cats fighting, an owl hooting, an insect buzzing and more. If your neighborhood is short on nature sounds, get a nature CD from the library and play it to give some outdoor ambiance to your campsite. You can listen to some nature sounds too. Talk about what kinds of animals you might hear if you were out in the woods. Invite a favorite stuffed teddy bear to join you in your backyard campground.
Take A Night Hike!
There's nothing quite like seeing the world under cover of night. You're toddler/preschooler might enjoy a new book titled, A Good Night Walk written and illustrated by Elisha Cooper. Read the story, and after sunset, plan to take an excursion. Go on a night hike around the block or the neighborhood. Before you head out make sure everyone is comfortably dressed to suit the temperature. Bring a backpack that contains:
- 1 canteen filled with water (a plastic water bottle will do in a pinch) to drink as needed.
- 1 flashlight
- 1 white bath towel
- 1 walking stick (a yardstick, cane, or a dead tree branch will do)
- 1 pair of tweezers
- 1 resealable plastic bag
(Oh, and at the campsite, be sure to have a piece of Styrofoam, some straight pins, hairspray, and an insect field guide to use after the hike.)
As you walk, talk about the things you see -- everything from houses to trees to cars and people. Talk about whether or not the night light makes them look different than in the daylight. What can't you easily see? To find out, try this experiment:
Bug A Bug!
Bugs are dining in the evening and you can interrupt their feast to see who's having dinner. Along your hiking route, find a low-hanging tree branch with lots of leaves. Stop and remove the towel and flashlight from your backpack. Have two people hold opposite ends of the towel, stretching it out flat directly underneath and very close to the tree branch. Have another person use the walking stick to whack and shake the branch a couple of times (be sure to avoid hitting people). Then, shine the flashlight on the towel and you may be surprised to see the different kinds of bugs that fell from the tree branch.
Most of them will try to get away fast -- but see if you can count them or try to identify them. What do you think they were eating on the tree branch? Some bugs eat leaves, and some eat other bugs! Isn't it amazing to realize all of the creatures that share our environment -- even though we don't always see them? Shake any remaining bugs off the towel and continue on your hike.
By the way, if you see a dead bug, use the tweezers to pick it up and put in the plastic bag. When you get back to your backyard campsite, use an insect field guide to try to identify it. Then pin the bug to a piece of Styrofoam. Spray it with hair spray to preserve it. You've just started an insect collection!
Sing Camp Songs!
Scouting organizations know camping songs and at their website you'll find a list of camp songs. Click on any one and a new page opens with the lyrics and you can listen to the tune! Learn the tunes and the lyrics and teach them to your kids. Or you could play some favorite CDs of children's music on the boom box. Younger children will enjoy Nancy Cassidy's Kids Songs: The Sing-Along Songbook.
If you plan to BBQ dinner in the backyard -- use the coals to roast marshmallows. Adults can roast the marshmallows for very young children. You can also teach them how to roast marshmallows but you must explain safe conduct around the fire and hot BBQ, and constant supervision is required.
Get a clean, long-handled skewer or barbecue fork. (Note: If you use a stick make sure it's not from a poisonous plant like oleander -- if in doubt, don't use the stick.) Wear oven mitts to protect hands from the heat. Spear one or two marshmallows on the end of the skewer or fork. Hold the marshmallows about 1-3 inches above the coals until the side facing the coals turns a warm brown color. Rotate the skewer slightly and continue to hold the marshmallows above the coals until the next section is a toasty color. Continue until all sides are golden brown. Remove the marshmallow from the fire.
Don't forget that the metal skewer can get very hot so handle with care and use extreme caution. Slide the gooey marshmallow off the skewer, allow it to cool to a comfortable temperature before eating. Be sure to put the used skewer someplace safe. Remember, it may be very hot -- so don't put it on the ground where someone might step on it -- or anywhere that someone might pick it up or bump into it accidentally.
A favorite snack of campers and hikers everywhere is GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) also known as Trail Mix. Assemble the ingredients and let the kids help make their own snack pack. Give them a baggie, and let them fill it with a mixture of peanuts, raisins, dried cranberries, M&Ms, chopped dried fruit like pineapple, apricots or dates, dried banana chips, Skittles, chocolate or carob chips, pretzels, and whatever else sounds good.
Look At The Stars!
When my kids were little, I often invited them to sit outside with me and watch the night sky. We'd cozy up in sleeping bags and just lie quietly on the ground or a lounge chair looking up at the stars. We'd talk about what we saw in the sky (the moon, stars, planes, etc.) and search for patterns, letters, numbers, and imaginary pictures that the stars made in the sky. Occasionally we'd identify a constellation or spot a shooting star (meteor).
If you'd like to show your kids a shooting star -- your chances of spotting one are best during annual meteor showers. Two of the best annual showers, include the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. (Basics of Meteor Observing)
While it's easier to see meteor showers between midnight and dawn in an area where there isn't much moonlight or light pollution -- you can still spot them right in your backyard after nightfall. All you need is patience. When you get ready to observe the sky, turn off all of the lights in the yard and house, and turn off your flashlights. Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness. In my experience, within an hour of keeping watch, we'd see several meteors. In the interest of warding off disappointment, I usually "failed" to see a shooting star until my children had seen one first. :)
Once you spot a shooting star talk about what it is -- a brilliant streak of light that travels across the sky. It's caused by dirt and ice particles from space that burn up as they enter Earth's atmosphere. "Shooting stars" are called "meteors" by astronomers and scientists. Of course, you can use that information in any way that your children will best understand. The idea here is not to force learning, but just to familiarize them with information that boosts their vocabulary and increases their knowledge of the world. Different kids will have very different reactions to this information. Be ready to answer lots of questions -- or just enjoy the sights without much discussion at all.
Want More Backyard Camping?
In August of each year you and your family can join backyard campers across America to enjoy a night of star-gazing, listening for nocturnal wildlife, and exploring a whole other world right in your own backyard. To be a part of this fun and fascinating nationwide event, visit Backyard Campout. When you get there, register your campsite (just invent and enter your campsite name along with your email address) and in an instant a new page opens that allows you to access the menu items that will help you make the most of your campout including:
- Packing lists -- find out what you'll need whether you're camping in the backyard or at a state park.
- Recipes -- Get instructions for cooking great eats in the great outdoors!
- Nocturnal Wildlife Guide -- use this online field guide to try to find the nocturnal animals that are more common to North America and your backyard!
- Night Photography Tips -- Document your campout with amazing photographs - just by following the easy tips suggested here.
- Star-Gazing Guide -- Use a free map of the August night sky to find constellations and other celestial wonders.
You'll also receive a free e-newsletter with updates as the Great American Backyard Campout draws near. Of course, the non-profit National Wildlife Federation would like your support -- so they have put together a Family Campout Kit you can purchase for $12 that includes a back pack and family activity guides too. However, you don't have to purchase anything to plan your own backyard campout by using the resources provided for free at their website. This is a really fun idea for encouraging nature awareness without leaving home!
Want More Camping Ideas For The Backyard And Beyond?
Have fun camping in your backyard and give your little ones a hug for me!
Article posted: August 14, 2005