As a child, I went camping regularly, with my parents, with my grandparents, with Girl Scouts. I knew all about how to identify poison ivy, how to cook over a camp fire (even if it was just marshmallows and hot dogs), how to search for kindling, how to wash dishes in a bucket. Since I spent so much time in the outdoors, I just assumed everyone else did too. It wasn’t until I started teaching that I realized that there are people who don’t like to hike and who have never slept in a tent! While I now understand that not everyone is a comfortable in nature as I am, I still feel like camping is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives – especially children. There are so many things that kids can learn from the experience of camping, like:
1.) There are living things everywhere. When you camp, you experience living things – deer, rabbits, ants, bees, flies, mosquitoes etc. Some of these things are annoying, but generally they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. When you are camping, you are visitors in the homes of these creatures and you see them a bit differently than when they invade your house.
2.) It’s okay to get dirty. Dirt is a part of nature, and as long as you don’t eat it in large quantities, it won’t hurt you. Digging in the dirt, picking up rocks and sticks, climbing trees, this is all part of camping and you’re going to get dirty. It’s important for kids to know that it’s okay to do this, and gives them a chance to realize why it’s so important to wash our hands before we eat!
3.) Fire can be fun – as long as you’re safe. For kids, building a campfire can seem like this amazing thing. You collect kindling (small sticks, pinecones, anything that will catch fire easily). You pile it up and light it on fire. You blow on it and hope it stays lit. You learn that dry wood burns and wet wood doesn’t. (That’s a good science lesson all on it’s own!) You learn to always have a full bucket of water nearby. Then, you get to use the fire to roast marshmallows, cook hotdogs or make hobo pies. This is a great time to talk about fire safety, and to let kids do something that is “dangerous” in a controlled environment.
4.) Self – sufficiency: how to cook food over a fire and wash dishes without a sink. There are so many life skills that can be taught while camping. Wait, you can wash dishes without a dishwasher? You can cook food without a stove? Water doesn’t come in infinite supply when you turn a tap and there are places without flush toilets! These are skills our ancestors took for granted, and camping is a great time to remind kids how long people lived and prospered without electricity, or even indoor plumbing!
5.) Nature deserves our respect. When you experience nature – the joys of a starlit night, the sound of the owl at night and the bluebird in the morning, the scent of a pine tree – you are more understanding of why nature needs to be protected. Even the youngest kid can understand that candy wrappers and other trash don’t belong on the forest floor and that we don’t want to pour chemicals into a pretty stream. By making these connections early on, kids will be able to connect them to bigger picture topics, like landfills and toxic waste later on, hopefully remembering the respect they built for nature.
6.) Stars are more beautiful than the T.V. When I teach about mythology, I always teach kids that these stories were mostly invented while people sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, because there was no t.v. or computers. Most of my students can’t understand the joy of laying under the stars and observing their beauty. Camping gives them that experience, that connection to their ancestors, and that appreciation for the amazing universe we inhabit.
7.) When it rains – you play cards! In our current, climate controlled world, we forget that sometimes the weather has a different plan than we do. Sometimes it’s hot when we’d rather it be cold, or rainy when we wish there was sun. Camping reminds you that there are other ways to deal with weather, than just running into an air conditioned house. We can swim and find a shady tree when it’s hot. We can throw on a sweatshirt when it’s cool. If it’s raining outside – sit in the tent with a deck of cards and enjoy what life throws at you.
8.) There is a difference between wild animals and domestic animals. Kids who never learn the difference between a pet and a wild animal put themselves in danger for animal bites or other incidences later in life. Camping teaches you never to feed a wild animal, because it domesticates them and makes them dig into your cooler for more. It teaches you to respect the homes of the animals living near your campsite, because YOU are the guest, not them. It teaches you that all animals were once wild, before humans decided some would be better as pets.
9.) “Tree” is a very simple word when you consider how many different kinds of plants are classified this way. There are so many different kinds of trees out there, each with different leaves, different seed pods, and different types of bark. The same can be said for flowers, bushes, ferns etc. Being in nature and exploring these concepts can help children develop their scientific observation and classification skills, as well as developing a true appreciation for the variety of life that exists on earth.
10.) Be alert and prepared! When I asked my 10 year old about the most important things he’s learned from camping, he said: Cover the tent with the rain tarp. Don’t leave food on the picnic table. Always bring a sweatshirt. Be aware of where you are. To me, all of these things can be covered under, be alert and prepared. Be prepared for different types of circumstances and weather, and thinking ahead and observing your circumstances help you to make predictions about what might happen.
Family camping, scout camping or school sponsored “day camping field trips” are all great ways to get kids understanding these concepts and skills that provide real life learning, background knowledge and connections to science and social studies topics too. My family is currently living in an RV, and while this may not provide exactly the same experience as a tent, I am thrilled with the life lessons my sons are learning. Check out our adventure at RVing with the Raki’s.