Everyday Environmentalist

Take Your Kids Camping

"We quickly discovered that needing, not just wanting, but actually needing to use a flashlight after dark was a source of awe and glee for our kids."

Kerry Crisley, senior media relations manager for The Nature Conservancy.

By Kerry Crisley

"Are we going in the canoe again, Daddy?"
"We sure are."
"Can I go fishing?"
"Of course you can."
"I'm getting good at casting."
"You're great at casting."

I'm listening to the whispered conversation that my husband John is having with our five-year old, Ben, over in the "Boys Tent". Here in the "Girl's Tent," our daughter Erin is shining her flashlight on the ceiling, making shapes with her three-year old fingers.

We're settling in for the second of a two-night stay at Tully Lake, a Trustees of Reservations campground in Royalston, Massachusetts. In the last day and a half we've canoed; caught and released fish (a yellow perch and a pumpkinseed); scaled the just-begging-to-be-climbed boulder near our tent site; and tracked painted turtles and frogs.

What's more, we've spent this time entirely outside (tents don't count as inside, do they?).

Don’t get me wrong, we enjoy the outdoors. Ben and Erin love swimming in my parents’ pool, and they can happily spend two hours at our local playground or zoo. Each day, though, these activities are punctuated with a reoccurring scene: the kids jockeying for space on our family room loveseat, fighting over whether to watch Iron Giant or Kipper.

And from what I read, hear and see, this scene is also playing out in homes across the country. Studies, books and even casual conversations with my friends all point to the same thing: our kids aren’t camping, hiking or exploring nature the way I and my friends did as children.

As a parent, this worries me. I vividly remember the long summer days I spent outside with my friends. Together we climbed trees, poked around ponds, explored tidepools and swam in the ocean. And I’m certain that this consistent exposure to the outdoors – especially the cool outdoors, like hunting for hermit crabs and catching frogs – is part of what led me to a career supporting conservation.

But with visits to our state and national parks declining, and more kids checking out video games instead of vernal pools, how many will eventually line up to lead conservation? More importantly, who will take the baton in the generational relay race against climate change?

This is what I was thinking as the summer marched on and I realized that my kids had yet to experience what it felt like to sleep outside, so John and I impulsively dusted off our gear and headed to Tully.

While I have camped before, I can’t call myself an expert, so the weekend was a mix of good, bad and yes, perhaps a bit ugly. But as I gently take the flashlight from my now-sleeping daughter’s hand and mull it over, I’m happy to realize that the Good List is longer than the others.

What Worked:

  • Short drive, short stay: Tully Lake is less than two hours for us, and it was comforting to know that if the weather turned bad or the kids just weren't taking to it, we could pack up and head home. And a two-night stay was just about right. While my son would have gamely stayed another day, Erin was ready to go back to her normal routine.
  • Bring a piece of home: Repeating excerpts from our daily routine at home helped our two young kids adapt to camping. We still had story time — just with flashlights instead of lamps — and having a supply of auntie Faith's chocolate chip muffins on hand kept them happily occupied (and quiet) in the early morning.
  • Stay put: We parked our car at the campground lot and left it there. For the duration of the weekend we walked, canoed, swam, fished and explored just within the campground. The kids soon became attached to particular spots: the curve in the lakeshore that formed a small pool perfect for swimming, the shady log that doubled as a bench during snack time, and of course, the begging-to-be-climbed boulder.

What I'd Do Differently Next Time:

  • To each his own…flashlight: We quickly discovered that needing — not just wanting, but actually needing! — to use a flashlight after dark was a source of awe and glee for our kids. And a cause for fights over who got to hold the "good" one. Next time, we'll bring two identical lights, plus our own, so that everyone is armed at night.
  • Bring camping chairs: Picnic tables are great for eating, but not for relaxing. Short of going back into the tent to lie on our air mattress, we didn't really have a comfortable place to read or talk. If you don't own or can't borrow them, places like REI rent them along with tents, sleeping bags and camping stoves.
  • Practice: The kids' first night in a tent was also their first night using a sleeping bag, and it took some time to get past the "I'm too hot," "now I'm too cold," "I slipped off the mattress" stages of bedtime. A night of practice, either in our living room or in the yard, a few days before the next trip will sort out which sleeping bags and blankets to bring and which to leave home. If you practice in your yard or on a porch, have your kids check out the night sky and point out easy-to-find constellations like Orion or the Big Dipper. The sky will look different from the campground, and it'll be fun to hear your kids explain how it looks different to them.

I don’t want to be focused on “next time” when I’m still awake in my tent, listening to a symphony of spring peepers. But I’m happy to know that there will be one. Perhaps we’ll start planning it when we’re home tomorrow.



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