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Outdoor Kids

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May 22, 2006
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Does camping with young children have a fear factor with parents? It seems so. My friend Wendy knows that I camp with my young children and asked, “How old do my kids have to be to take them camping.” I replied, “How old are they now?” Three and five was her response, to which I sarcastically answered, “You’re just wasted four years.”

When parents ask me at what age they should introduce their children to the experience of camping, my answer is always, “Right Now!”

SIMPLE MEANS FUN

There are things you can do before your trip to make it a pleasant memory for the entire family. Keep it simple and fun for the kids. Here’s an idea: How about having your child hold the tent stakes and hand them to you while you hammer away, or they can finish hammering for you. This will be a great confidence builder. With some creativity most camping chores can be done together as a family.

The number one concern for parents of children of any age is safety. This keeps parents from introducing their children to camping at an early age. The “What ifs?” can be a major road block to taking that venture into the outdoors, but to a certain extent, your child doesn’t face any more danger in the campsite than they do in the backyard.

Every summer the evening news covers stories of children wandering away from camp and getting lost in the wilderness. This is, and should be, a major concern of parents. But keep in mind that you if you take some basic precautions and extra vigilance of a watchful eye this danger is minimal.

When my children were three- and four-years old, they had been camping dozens of times, but they were at the age where a beautiful butterfly or cute chipmunk was worth chasing. I sat them down and presented them each with their own special camp fanny pack. Inside they found a good, loud whistle, band-aids, wet wipes and several other important items. First we discussed that if for some reason they got separated from Mom or Dad that they were to sit down next to a tree and wait for us. We reminded them of these basic rules at the beginning of every trip.

Next we showed them the whistle was their best friend. We told the kids that calling for help didn’t work very well because their voices wouldn’t be heard very far in the woods. To illustrate this I walked into the woods a short distance and told the girls to wave their arms if they could hear me shout “Help.” Of course they could hear me the first and second time, but by the time I was 100 yards of so from the camp they couldn’t hear me. I blew the whistle and both girls began to wave their arms. We emphasized that the whistle was a safety tool and was only to be blown if they couldn’t see camp and were in trouble and needed help; if they blew it when they weren’t in trouble…they were in BIG trouble.

KID-PROOF CAMPSITE

Make your camp safe. Expect your child to get bumps, cuts and scrapes as they explore the outdoors, but keep in mind that they get those at home, too. Go ahead and kid-proof the campsite by putting away sharp tools and extinguishing campfires when they’re not in use or if there is no direct adult supervision near the fire.

If tent camping, tie brightly colored ribbon on tent stakes and guy lines, especially at your child’s eye level. Better yet, have your child do it. It will help them remember to be careful around those areas. Inspect the campsite when you arrive for any objects that may pose a danger and then point them out to the children or simply remove them.

When camping with toddlers your desire may be to bring everything. Try to steer yourself away from that kind of thinking. Remember camping is a form of recreation and it should be just that. Taking the entire playroom defeats the purpose. Let the child explore and learn. Definitely bring the essentials such as portable playpen, port-a-potty, and favorite toy or blanket. The backpack-style child carriers that allow you to pack toddler on your back are perfect for a hike to the lake for some fishing. Many have canopies for shade and can be used as a child’s chair as well.

Bring extra clothes. Dress your children in bright colors. Be prepared with layers, too. I like a lightweight windbreaker as a final layer. More than likely mornings and evenings will be chilly and you can peel off layers or add them as needed. The bright colors will give you added visibility and safety.

COMFORT ZONE

Think of nighttime comfort as well. Some younger children become frightened at bedtime in an unfamiliar setting. Attach a sock with a flashlight inside to your child’s sleeping bag. The soft glow will comfort them and give enough light for them to see their surroundings. “Touch” lights that run on batteries are good too.

Try and keep your youngest child’s schedule in mind when camping. Keep nap and bedtime routines the same. Plan you activities around these times and keep in mind that kids will play hard while camping, and sleep time will be longer than usual.

Plan your daily events with your child’s interest in mind. If they are intrigued with the animals that abound in the forest, then plan for a short hike to look for animals, their homes and tracks. If you have a fear of any animal, keep it to yourself. Children at this age are very impressionable. Do you really want your snake phobia to be passed on? Take animal guidebooks along so that when you see wildlife, you can help your toddler find the animal in the book and read about how it lives its life. Make the hike in the early morning or late afternoon when the animals are most active. Older children can draw and write about what they see on their hike and make their own animal guidebook.

If your child is into arts and craft making, bring crayons and paper and make rubbings of the various plants and textures they find in camp. If your toddler is more of the hands-on type, build a simple lean-to from small logs and branches. Then have lunch in your new fort.

GOOD FOOD

Part of the fun of camping is preparing food over a camp stove, so don’t spoil the fun by bring all pre-packaged food for your youngsters. Sure, some is handy for the car ride and quick snack, but letting your children help you cook is even more fun, for them and you! Try and prepare any cutting or slicing at home. This saves time and reduces the risk of cut fingers.

One of my favorite morning meals are omelets in a bag. Have your child break two eggs in a zipper-closure-type sandwich bag. Add shredded cheese, chopped or diced veggies or whatever they like and zip up the bag. Then tell your child to gently squeeze the bag until the eggs are well mixed. Put the bag into boiling water and let it cook for five minutes. Remove the bag and let it cool slightly, then they can eat right out of the bag. This is a great, quick and easy-clean-up breakfast.

For evening meals, start early. Plan on having dinner finished before sunset so you can enjoy the evening fire and make /S’mores/ before you child calls it a day. There have been more than a few times when my girls have fallen asleep in my arms while waiting for a toasty marshmallow.

Did I have a fear factor before taking my youngster camping? You bet! I had the fear of missing out on having my girls become confident young people with abounding self-esteem. We can’t think of a better way to accomplish that, and so much more, than exploring and enjoying the outdoors with the entire family.

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10 WAYS TO BETTER CAMPING WITH KIDS

1- Allow them to bring their pillow from home. It increases their comfort zone.

2- Get them each their own flashlight. It gives them more nighttime confidence, and is a good first piece of gear for them to learn responsibility for.

3- Bring simple games such as checkers for when they get tired of exploring.

4- Buy high-quality outdoor clothing that is specially designed for youngsters.

5- Allow them to help where they can: cooking, gathering wood for fires, etc.

6- Keep day hikes relatively short, especially for young children.

7- Choose hikes that lead to something special such as a pond or lake.

8- Include them in trip pre-planning. It will make them more involved and further the family bonding process.

9- Make sure you have plenty of trail snacks for them when you go hiking.

10-Familiarize everyone with the campground right away. It will help keep little ones from becoming lost ones!

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