When You Take Kids Camping
Camping with children is not like camping with adults
© Copyright 2001, by Gary Benton
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Those of us who enjoy sharing nature with children often mean well, but at times we fail to accomplish out goals of motivating and educating. I feel it is our responsibility as adults to teach our children properly. I believe most adults fail because we view children as “little adults.” Children are not little adults and do not have the same thinking powers we do. In some cases the child may be too young for cognitive reasoning or even a loose association of the subject matter. Well, what does all of this psychological mumbo-jumbo mean to you? Perhaps very little, but if you want to keep a child’s interest in nature alive and keep them safe at the same time, I do have a few suggestions.
I have discovered that unlike adults, most children are unafraid of nature. This may be due to the fact that most children are trusting of most things. Now, this does not mean that a child will not be scared on an over night camping trip, but if approached properly by an adult, this fear can be great reduced (And, I consider a over night camping trip the best way to expose a child to the outdoors). An adult should view teaching a child about nature as an educational process for the both of you. Keep in mind that a child in today’s society is exposed to media that in the past just was not there. As a result of this saturation of information the child may have some unrealistic view about the outdoors.
Prior to your hike, picnic, or camping trip spend some time with the child and discuss what will take place. Be honest and speak about insects, animals, bathrooms (or the lack), foods, and so on. Many children will be excited about spending time in the wilds, but most will have some unrealistic concerns. Find out what the child’s concerns are. Discuss the concerns with the child and be honest here. It is important that the child learn to trust your suggestions and explanations. I have found most kids are very interested, but may have concerns about spiders, snakes, where they will sleep and so on. Find out by talking with the child which concern they may have.
My daughter and I discussed an upcoming camping trip many years ago, and her primary concern was hygiene. She wanted to know where she could bathe, brush her teeth, and use the bathroom. Once I explained that we were camping in a designated public campground that had a building with showers, sinks, and a toilet, she was much relieved. By meeting her needs of hygiene and discussing it all before the trip she had a much more enjoyable stay.
One aspect of camping that can turn a child against the hobby is if the adult is poorly prepared to camp. Nothing seems to turn a child against camping faster than going on a first trip that is prepared well. If the food, shelter, and fire are difficulties on the trip the child may view camping with a critical eye. Just imagine your first camping trip and you have no food, shelter or fire. The child may accept the discomfort of a poorly planned trip as a norm and not enjoy it at all. If the supervising adult checks, and then rechecks the equipment and supplies before the trip, the whole experience will turn out better for all concerned. It is important to make that first trip special!
I also suggest you start your children camping at an early age. All three of my kids started very young. Two of them, David and Lisa, were camping by the age of one year. Granted, we only took them to designated campgrounds and in fair weather, but they “grew up” camping and now both are very experienced campers, and very comfortable sleeping in the bush with just a campfire and the minimum amount of supplies. It is a learning process. And, with this learning process came not only experience, but a total acceptance of nature as it really is.
Another very important aspect of camping with children is setting a good example for them. We want our children to grow up protecting our natural resources and keeping nature clean. Well, teach them as children and they will carry the attitude into adulthood. I have a few simple child educating rules that I enforce when I camp with a child.
Keep the campsite clean at all times. Trash and waste goes into the proper containers immediately
. Do not allow the child to liter at any time, only don’t scold, instead explain why littering is not good.
Use only dead wood for fires. Stack the wood up neatly and explain to the child why it is not placed too close to the fire. Teach the child that the maiming of trees, flowers, or other plant life is frown upon. Explain why only dead wood should used (it burns better and it does not hurt the environment to use dead wood).
Require all campers use the designated toilet area. Boys, I have found, tend to want to sneak behind a tent. Girls are usually much more compelled to use the designated toilets because of privacy issues.
Teach the child about the animals you see. I believe you will find them fascinated by the small creatures, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, birds and so on. My children were always spellbound to seeing deer, moose, or an occasional bear (we lived in Alaska at the time) near the campsite.
Make certain your child knows that wild animals are wild. Stress to them that the animals you see are not pets and under no circumstances should the child attempt to feed or pet any animal. The feeding of animals may make the creature dependent on handouts and petting can result in bites or scratches from the animal. Teach them to appreciate the beauty of just seeing wild animals in a natural environment.
I always stress to any child just before we leave a campsite that we need to make sure the area is cleaner than when we found it. We then double check for liter, remove the stacked wood pile, and make sure the campfire is out and covered with dirt. I want no trace of our camping left for other to see, except for the covered fire pit. We then carry all refuse out with us.
Another aspect of sharing nature with a child that should be addressed is safety. Make sure to always stress camping safety with each child. Explain why it is dangerous for the child to leave the campsite alone (may get lost, encounter a snake, or dangerous animal). Give each child a plastic whistle and make sure they understand to blow it only if they are lost. It is also a good idea to teach the child how to use leaves to keep warm overnight (they can just cover up with the leaves).
Inform each child that the only water to drink is from your water source. Many kids want to taste stream or river water, and that is not safe to drink. Make sure they understand that drinking bad water can make them very ill.
Warn, but do not scare, each child about snakes. Pit vipers, the most common type of poisonous snake in North America, are found throughout the United States. Teach the child that snakes will usually move away from people, but to use caution when in the woods. Remind them to watch where they put their hands and feet, because that is the part of the body where most snakebites occur. I always end my explanation on snakes with the fact that snakes are to be respected not hated. I also explain the role that snakes play in nature and that most (about 90%) of the snakes in the world are not poisonous.
Camp safety is another good subject to discuss. Explain that only adults can make a fire, add wood to a fire, or cook on a fire (unless supervised by an adult). Keep a container of water, or a fire extinguisher, near the fire and show the child how to use it.
You should also make sure all of the kids know to report any injury, regardless of how small, to an adult. All cuts, scrapes, or punctures should be cleaned and covered to avoid infection.
Another area to discuss with children, and not a very popular one, is hygiene. Explain to the child that regular bathing, the brushing of teeth, and good overall cleanliness is required. Good overall cleanliness includes the daily changing of underwear, replacing soiled clothing immediately, as well as the changing of socks as required. I have found this discussion to be the most unpopular subject among children. They seem to think, like some adults, that hygiene is not important outdoors. Outdoor professionals will tell you the importance of hygiene in the bush. Nothing can ruin a camping trip faster than an illness resulting from poor hygiene.
Keep the children involved in basic camp chores. They can assist by doing dishes, washing their clothing, airing sleeping bags or blankets, picking up liter, or any other needed tasks. These are all things that have to be done and it is a good idea to teach them to do these tasks at an early age. The habit of doing these needed camp chores will continue a lifetime.
Older children and teens can actually do some camp cooking with supervision. I usually start them out with hotdogs on a stick, marsh mellows, or helping me prepare and cook pancakes for breakfast. As the child ages, so does the type of cooking. One of the favorites of my children was preparing our “camping T.V. dinners.” These are prepared the night before the trip at home. Each child would take an uncooked meat item (chicken leg, cubed beef, or a pork chop), cubed potatoes, a veggie (green beans or corn on the cob), some cubed fruit (apple or banana), and double wrap it in heavy-duty aluminum foil. The food package then goes into the freezer. The next day at the campsite the foil wrapped food is placed on a bed of coals to cook. I turn the foil about every five minutes. It takes a surprisingly short time for the foods to cook in their own steam. And, because the “fixed” dinner, the children loved them!
Another good idea is to have a few hobbies, books, or games along to give the child something to do when they want to stay close to the campsite or during bad weather. I have found a sudden rain shower or snowfall will bore them to death because they will have to remain in the shelter. If you have games or books along they can pass the time until the weather clears. Just be sure and allow the children to pick the games, hobbies, or books before the trip. It should be things they are interested it, not you.
To me, nothing is more rewarding than seeing the face of a child as they watch deer feed close to the camp or hearing them comment on a beautiful sunrise. The magic of nature is often reflected in their eyes. You can assist any child in learning to enjoy the woods safely and comfortably. The key is instilling an interest, motivating, and sharing the rewards of keeping our forests and campgrounds clean at an early age. Early in my life my grandfather took the time to teach me to appreciate and respect the wonders of nature. You know, to this day I remember each and every trip we shared. Share the gift of nature with a child, because the memories are priceless! Kids and camping is fun!
Take care, stay safe, and I hope to see you and your family in the woods soon!
Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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