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Camping Is Kid Stuff!

A Guide for Parents

By Tamia Nelson Down at the Old Swimming Hole

August 5, 2014

I was my parent's first child. Six more followed in quick succession. And because I was the oldest — not to mention a girl — it wasn't long before I became my mother's second‑in‑command. I changed diapers, bathed infants, made meals, sat up with sick siblings, and took younger brothers and sisters on their first camping trips. With these experiences behind me, it won't surprise you to learn that I've never been tempted to belittle the challenges confronting what the headline writers call "stay‑at‑home moms." But my extended apprenticeship in the art of parenting had another consequence: I decided I didn't want kids of my own. I enjoyed the company of children, to be sure, but I didn't think I had the staying power to be a mother. I preferred the role of favorite aunt.

Why am I telling you all this? So you'll understand how a woman without children can talk about camping with kids. And I'm still asked to do just that from time to time. The approach is often tentative. A parent — usually but not invariably a mother — will ask me how her kids will cope with paddling and camping trips. Will they be bored, and if they are, will they make the adults' lives a misery for as long as the trip lasts? Or (to put a more positive spin on the question) how can a mother go about passing on her love of the outdoors to her children?

Unfortunately, definitive answers to such questions are impossible. No two kids are alike. Nor are any two parents, for that matter. My mother was in large measure responsible for my own enthusiasm for the outdoor life. On the other hand, my father regarded even suburban New Jersey as a dangerous wilderness. It's safe to say that the call of the wild never sounded in his ear. And there are other considerations, too. The increasing dependence of each new generation on passive electronic entertainments isn't very encouraging. Nonetheless, if my experience taking my younger siblings and their friends into the backcountry is any indication, kids are seldom bored in camp or on the water. At least they're not if their guide and mentor has a real love of the outdoor life, along with a knack for communicating this enthusiasm to her offspring.

And from what I've seen, most kids who are old enough to carry a small rucksack or wield a diminutive paddle are natural campers, quick to learn and endlessly fascinated by the constantly unfolding drama of the natural world. Still, you can't expect your kids to forsake everything that is familiar. Nor should you demand that they rough it. A comfortable camp is a must, as are a flexible schedule and modest objectives.

So much for generalities. But generalities aren't enough. Any adult who takes kids into the backcountry is a leader by default. Her first order of business, therefore, is not to exceed her own competence. And her second? To keep her charges entertained. By which I don't mean that she should emulate the patronizing (matronizing?) puppets of Sesame Street. It's far better if she simply introduces her kids to the things she enjoys, in a way that makes her own enjoyment manifest. Invitation is always better than command, after all. Enthusiasm is communicable.

What, then, are …

The Things That Kids Like to Do on and in the Water?

The header gives you a vital clue: water. I doubt that any other element has more power to engage and enthrall kids. Quiet pools, crashing surf, or turbulent rapids — it makes no difference. All of these command a child's rapt attention. And since there's never a shortage of water on a canoeing or kayaking trip, why not …

Go Fishing?  My grandfather put a paddle in my hand about the same time he showed me how to cast a fly, and for many years the two activities were inextricably linked in my mind. Our trips together are still among my fondest memories. There's no reason why your kids can't enjoy an equally happy legacy.

What's that? You say you're not into fishing? Then …

Go Swimming!  In fact, this probably should come first, since a child who can't swim can't be said to be safe in any water deeper than his knees. And learning to swim also dispels the fear many children feel when first venturing onto (or into) the water. Of course, it goes without saying that no one — child or adult, earnest dog‑paddler or Olympic hopeful — should enter a boat without first donning a life vest. But I've said it, nevertheless. It's that important.

Anyway, as soon as your kid is at home in the water, whole new worlds open before him. With proper instruction and supervision — and a minimum of gear — he can snorkel in the shallows around camp, prospecting for pebbles and mussel shells and getting up close and personal with the creatures who make their homes below the surface. That's an eye‑opening experience for any child.

Afterwards, when pottering about with a mask and snorkel palls, why not take the opportunity to …

Practice Recovery and Self‑Rescue.  Capsize and recovery drills used to be part of the summer camp canoeing curriculum. It's not hard to see why. They're both practical and fun. And if you're on a canoeing or kayaking holiday, you brought all the equipment you'll need with you: boats, paddles, and life vests. Just pick a sunny bay and — with a rescue boat standing by — swamp or capsize your canoe and then right it and empty it. Young kids can help you, while older kids can do it on their own. (Under close supervision, obviously.) And kayakers? This is the time to demonstrate and practice the wet exit, and for your kids to begin learning how to roll.

The bottom line? A few sunny days spent splashing about in the shallows can pay big dividends later. And it's fun, too. A win‑win solution, in other words.

I could go on at length — I've said nothing about canoe sailing, for instance, or gunwale acrobatics — but we don't want to ignore the opportunities for exploration and discovery on dry land, do we? These can teach vital lessons, one of the most important being …

The Art of Staying Found

So start your kids off right, by helping them …

Get Acquainted With Map and Compass.  If I had my way, every kid would be given a compass and a topographic map of his neighborhood. And then he'd be taught how to use them. Failing that, there's no better time than a family canoe trip to introduce your kids to the magic of the north‑pointing needle. Get out your maps and set the kids to work — except that it won't seem like work to them. Organize a treasure hunt with directions given in bearings and paces. Or lay out an informal orienteering course. Practice triangulation. Explain why north by compass is seldom exactly the same as north on the map.

Finally, when map and compass hold no further mysteries for your kids, challenge them to …

Make a Sketch Map of the Camp and Its Surroundings.  It can be a simple back‑of‑an‑envelope affair or a full‑blown exercise in plane‑table cartography. Parents — and older kids with a literary bent — will find useful hints in Arthur Ransome's Secret Water, one of his Swallows and Amazons novels. Don't let the fact that the book isn't on the Scholastic summer reading list dissuade you. If the idea of a map‑making adventure appeals, Secret Water is definitely worth a look. It has something to offer both children and adults. But be warned: The book reflects the language and prejudices of a British writer who came of age in the years before the Great War. Modern readers will have to roll with the punches, so to speak. Then again, these affronts to contemporary sensibilities are themselves instructive, and any gasps of outrage will be tempered by the occasional giggle. A main character is named "Titty," for instance. This was once an accepted diminutive for Laetitia, but it's not often heard today.

The list of teachable skills is just about endless, of course. You could set up a gate and let the kids practice maneuvering around it. Or introduce older kids to the elements of camp cookery. Or help them learn a half‑dozen useful knots. Or… But not everything has to have a practical purpose. There are plenty of times when it pays just to stand and stare. And a campsite on a lake, river, or beach is the ideal place for kids to get to know the …

Birds and Beasts

Not to mention the flowers, trees, and mushrooms. That said, it's important your kids understand that "getting to know" wild animals doesn't mean "getting close to" them, let alone "taking one home." The collecting urge is strong in both kids and adults, but since there are a lot more of us these days — and fewer of them (i.e., wild plants and wild creatures) — it's best to satisfy this impulse with a camera. Happily, that doesn't narrow the scope of possible activities, beginning with …

Looking for Signs and Spoor.  Show your kid how to identify tracks and scat. (All kids are fascinated by poop.) Help him make sense of the scraps of leathery eggshell that mark a turtle's nest, or the scattered bones from a coyote's meal, or the midden of eviscerated cones left by a squirrel. In short, teach your kid to use his eyes.

And while you're at it, give him a head start in …

The Naming of Things.  Teach him how to use a field guide, and if he seems keen, help him build his own library of guides. The wild world becomes a lot more welcoming when you're on first name terms with the permanent residents, after all, and that goes double for kids.

Then, once your kid has begun to get a handle on the names of his new acquaintances, suggest he …

Keep a Natural History Log.  He can leave the iPad at home. (There are no current bushes in the backcountry, right?) A simple notebook or sketchpad is perfectly adequate. With this and a pencil, your kid is fully equipped to keep a record of what he sees, when he sees it, and where, complete with sketches and, yes, maps.

Speaking of what he sees, there's no reason why your kid has to limit himself to the Mark I eyeball. There's …

A Small World Right at His Feet, Waiting to be Explored.  Along with a map and a compass, I'd give every kid a hand lens, with a lanyard to prevent loss. A hand lens is a passport to an invisible realm, full of fascinating and often fantastic creatures. Make sure your kid gets a look‑in.

And don't stop there. The night sky in the backcountry, well away from the corpse‑sheen of streetlights and the dueling lightsabers of passing cars, is an unknown country for a lot of us, kids and adults alike. That being the case, …

Why Not Explore the Stars With Your Kid?  Get a guide to the night sky and a good pair of binoculars. Identify the constellations. Find the Milky Way. Hunt for planets. Survey the lunar seas. Watch for shooting stars. "Acquainted with the Night" will get you started, but you and your kid will soon be ready to make your own discoveries. Which is just the way it should be.

I hope my message is getting through. Unless your kid is so tightly ensnared in the Web that he can't free himself, there's very little chance he'll be bored in the backcountry. And to ensure that the memories of your times together don't fade, make them …

A Matter of Record

That notebook I mentioned earlier is good for more than natural history notes and sketch maps. It's also ideal for …

Keeping a Journal.  Journaling classes are springing up everywhere, but most of them are directed at adults. This is too bad. Why do we think that kids have nothing worth recording? I'm damned if I know. I do know I'd give a lot to have a written record of the hours I spent in the woods with my mother and granddad, though. And it won't hurt any kid to get into the habit of writing something besides ephemeral tweets and text messages.

Which isn't to say that I'm against all applications of technology. A point‑and‑shoot digital camera is a great tool for any young naturalist, and its utility is enhanced if it can be used to make movies. Many cameras also have decent sound recording capabilities. That's great for …

Recording the Sounds of the Wild.  The backcountry isn't back home. You'll be spared the dawn chorus of riding mowers, the rumble of sixty‑something bad boys cruising tipsily from bar to bar on their straight‑pipe Harleys, the daily grind of backhoes preparing sites on the now treeless Maplewood Estates, the neighbors' dog who never shuts up… And what will you hear, instead? The slap of a beaver's tail. The wail of a distant loon. The bellow of a bullfrog. The jackhammer rattle of a pileated woodpecker. The indignant chatter of a red squirrel high in a white pine. The subtle splash of a rising trout. The crash of storm waves on the beach…

Your kid will probably find these strange and wonderful sounds as captivating as you do. Make sure he can bring them home. If his camera won't do the biz, give him a digital recorder. And work with him to identify everything that he records. Birding by ear is even more challenging — and possibly more rewarding — than birding by eye.

Notebook. Pencil. Hand lens. Binoculars. Camera. Recorder. With these simple tools, your kid can put together a multimedia record of all he has seen and heard while in camp and on the water, plus everything he's smelled and tasted and touched and thought. There's no better way to awaken a love of the out‑of‑doors.


Day's End


Are you thinking about taking your kids canoeing or kayaking? Good. Kids are natural explorers. It's how they learn. But while they can do a lot of learning on their own, the backcountry can be a stern teacher. You'll have to show them the way. And you'll want them to have fun at the same time. Luckily, it won't be hard. Camping really is kid stuff.

And before we leave the topic: Have I left anything out? If so, please don't keep it to yourself. Let me know, and I'll pass the word along.

A Note to the Reader: In this column, I've assumed that the parent is a woman and the kid is a boy. But it could easily be the other way round. To borrow from a footnote in Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker, everything I have to say in this and any other article about women or girls applies equally to men or boys. Well, almost everything. And almost equally.



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