Congratulations! You’ve done it! You’ve made the commitment to explore the great outdoors, toddlers in tow, on a camping trip! This is going to be a great experience for your family but there will be some challenges. One of the big challenges is keeping your kiddos entertained. Just like us, modern children are a little too used to TV at the push of a button. Even if you think you’re good about limiting screen time, you may be surprised how “lost” your kids might be in the wilderness. Just like you, they’ll need some time to hone their “unplugged” lifestyle. There are some good, old fashioned activities you can bring to help them be more successful. Remember, to have a nice balance between structured activities and unstructured time. Boredom is actually really good for kids. It forces them to self-entertain and get creative. I like to give these activities out one at a time to encourage the growth of their attention span and rewind from their normally overstimulated life.
Sidewalk chalk is amazingly versatile. You can draw on pavement, rocks, gravel, all sorts of things. Put your kids to work “decorating” the campsite or making a winding path for toy cars to travel along. It’s a great fine motor activity that will entertain all ages.
Toy Cars and Trucks
Boys and girls alike will have tons of fun camping with toy trucks. Whether construction vehicles, matchbox cars or monster trucks, there are lots of creative way to play with trucks outdoors. Younger children will like “excavating” the campsite and loading dirt up in a dump truck. Older kids might like building a race track for the trucks complete with jumps and obstacles.
Good old Crayola watercolors are great for camping. Have kids collect different nature items such as leaves and rocks and decorate them using water colors. You’ll be surprised how beautiful their creations can be. Plus, watercolors are easy to clean up and share amongst a lot of kids (just bring enough paint brushes).
Nature Scavenger Hunt
To get your kids out and engaging with the nature around them, do a nature scavenger hunt. There are a lot of great printable options you can print out in advance (here’s one I like to use) but you can also do this on the fly by just writing out a list. For my little guys, I like the printable ones because they have pictures as well as words. You can bring buckets to collect the items or use old grocery sacks.
Similar to the nature scavenger hunt, send your kids on a rock hunt. Ask them to find big rocks, small ones, rough and smooth. This is a great way to learn about opposites, size differences and all the different types of rocks out there. Before sending them on this mission, assess that there are a lot of rocks in your area. Nothing is more frustrating for your kids than not being able to find any rocks.
Pretty much every kid LOVES bubbles. I like to bring some sort of gimmicky bubble toy they’ve never seen before when we camp. Things like bubble guns and fans are especially good for little kids who haven’t mastered the bubble wand yet. Giant bubble makers are great for kids and adults. Have a contest about who can make the biggest bubble.
Biking is a big part of being a kid camping these days. Bikes, trikes and helmets are a must for your kids, if they want to keep up with the other kids. I know it can be a bit difficult to pack bikes but it will be worth it. If you have a kid who’s learning to ride, camping can be some great, dedicated time to master the skill in a slower paced environment.
For your first few trips, I highly recommend finding campgrounds with playgrounds. This familiar form of outside play is a much needed mental break for both your kids and you.
If your campground has water, don’t forget the swim gear but remember swimming in the great outdoors is a little different than the neighborhood pool. Bring older or secondhand swim suits since they might be getting extra dirty or torn on rocks and sticks. Make sure you’re kids have some sort of shoe that can get wet unless you’re certain there’s a safe sandy beach. I like to make sure my kids have something that protects their toes too (not just flip flops or sandals) so something like Crocs or this kind of shoe are great options! Just make sure you’re water shoes aren’t your only shoes, especially if they don’t dry quickly. I made that mistake on our first trip and I felt so bad as the temperatures dropped at night and my kiddos still had wet shoes. Lastly, swimming at campgrounds usually isn’t supervised by a lifeguard so I insist that my kids wear a life jacket at all times – especially since they aren’t swimmers yet. Puddle Jumpers are great for little kids, they are certified by the Coast Guard as a PFD but are less cumbersome than a life jacket. If something weird should happen, it will help them keep their little heads above water until you can reach them.
Even if your family tends to tan rather than burn, spending 90% of your time outside is very different than how you live at home. I put sunscreen on myself and my kids as soon as we wake up in the morning and then reapply after naps and if we go swimming. The most sure fire way to ruin your camping trip is a cranky, sun-burnt toddler.
Of course, you certainly want to make sure that they are really interacting with each other and nature. Hikes are great but for toddlers, not super realistic unless you pack them. You can also bring an assortment of picture books that relate to nature, camping and outdoor adventures. That’s a great way to get their little brains turning. So, these are the ideas I’ve put to good use on our trips but I’d love to know what you guys have done with your kids – especially if they are a bit older.