I wasn’t sure what to expect when I took my two kids (6 & 8 at the time; now 9 & 11) camping in a state forest for the first time several years ago. We had done some camping in the backyard, but I wasn’t sure how they’d do camping for several days away from home. Would they hate it? Would they get bored? Would they never want to do it again? Would I lose my mind?
I hoped that they would enjoy it. But I was shocked at the explosion of enthusiasm they had for camping and they continue to have for it. In hindsight, the fact that I was shocked was pretty stupid. Because camping is awesome.
One of the truths in life is kids love adventure. Another is kids love freedom. And camping offers both. The success of our camping trips hasn’t been based so much on me providing them with activities or teaching them skills. It’s been about letting them go. They seem to love the freedom and trust I put in them to explore the surrounding woods on their own, looking for cool rocks and creatures. They love the responsibility of starting and managing a campfire. And, in return, I’ve learned that when I give my kids freedom and my trust, they actually make really good, responsible decisions. It’s been a rewarding learning process for all of us.
Of course, all within reason. I’m not just letting my kids run around a forest with matches. I’m there. But they enjoy having such responsibility. And out there, in the moment, they seem more likely to come to me with a question about something like starting a fire, rather than me dictating to them. That’s when our best teaching moments happen. And the pride on my daughter’s face when she got up one morning and got the fire going herself was something that will stay with me forever.
As far as keeping them interested and engaged, the combination of a forest and a kid’s imagination is pure magic. If you don’t micro-manage kids and you let them have their idle time, it’s amazing what they’ll come up with. Fact is, looking for cool rocks is way more fun than any app. Blueberries taste best off a bush in the woods that you found yourself. Fort-building is fun at any age. What kid doesn’t like finding frogs or salamanders, which is a great opportunity to have a conversation about respect for nature? And, as we adults know, nothing is better and more interesting than a good fire. Besides the enjoyment of managing a fire, kids love seeing how things like leaves and branches burn. They enjoy making “pencils” out of charred sticks. What’s true for grown-ups is true for kids: Fire is endless entertainment.
The most important thing is don’t underestimate your kids. I did; I wish I’d taken them camping sooner. Now we go several times a year, and they say they want to try winter camping (rather than me pushing it). I did the same thing with hiking. I couldn’t believe how easily they climbed Mount Monadnock the first time we did it years ago. Wish I’d done that sooner.
Ultimately, it wasn’t so much about me teaching them skills as it was about me learning to trust them. I believe in them now. This summer it’s multi-day overnights in the backcountry and a conquest of Mount Washington, and any other adventures they want us to tackle.
Give your kids the freedom to explore the outdoors, and they’ll end up loving it as much as you do.