kidscampingRecently, while we were camping with our three kids, ages 15, 12 and 10, we heard strange noises coming from the woods. There was a sort of soft “whoompf” of wood hitting something. While my husband and I were puttering at the campsite, the kids had made up a game of pinecone baseball. Their diamond was marked by rocks and the outfield was filled with hardwoods. The pitcher tossed a pinecone, and the batter would whack it with a sun-bleached stick and then run around the bases — slaloming through the trees.

We were delighted at their imagination and cooperation — two things that are compromised at home by the ever-present call of screen time. I swear I’ve been spending my entire summer chasing the kids off their digital devices. With X-Box controller firmly in hand, our kids balk at the idea of going on a hike or a mountain bike. The only thing that seems to lure them outside these days is Pokémon Go.

A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation Study found that kids ages 8 to 18 spend a staggering 7 hours and 38 minutes a day engaged with media and technology. That’s nearly the length of a work day for most parents. Worse yet, kids don’t take the weekends off.

But when we camp, we leave the screen time battles at home. Ever since our children were small, we set an expectation that there would be no digital devices at camp. The kids love our camping trips so much, they go along with it. With the flicker of the campfire replacing the glow of the screen, these weekends in the woods are spent bonding as a family and immersing the kids in nature, which we know is good for them on so many levels.

Spark Imaginations in Nature
Sure, at home the kids like to build virtual worlds in Minecraft. But out in the woods, they love to build fairy houses, tiny but real structures made from rocks, sticks and feathers. The collecting of materials gets kids moving in the woods and the construction piece tests their imagination.

There is evidence that interacting with nature is good for your creativity. In a study published in the Public Library of Science’s PLOS ONE Journal in 2012, researchers found that after only four days of unplugging completely from media devices and immersing themselves in nature, Outward Bound hikers showed a 50 percent increase on performance on a problem-solving creativity task.

A few tips for building fairy houses:

  • Find the perfect spot: Use fallen logs or large boulder as building sites. Having the fairy house partly hidden from view tends to add a little intrigue, though it’s wise to have children build where you can still see them from your campsite.
  • Keep the impact low: Encourage kids to use materials found in nature like twigs, leaves, rocks, pine needles, pinecones, feathers, shells, seaweed and bark, rather than living things like slow-growing moss and rare wildflowers.
  • Leave a note. My kids’ favorite moment comes when they wake to find that overnight some magical creature has left a hand-written note rolled up like a scroll inside their fairy house.

Get Moving
At home, parents fight against the inertia created by couch and iPad. At the campsite, it’s much easier to enlist kids for a ramble in the woods. Often you can hit the trail right from the campsite. According to a study published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 31.7 percent of kids ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. And the CDC reports that the incidence of obesity in children ages 12 to 17 has tripled since the late 1970s.

A walk in the woods is good for the body. And completing a hike gives kids a sense of confidence in what they can accomplish under their own power. Here are a few strategies for getting kids chugging down the trail:

  • Recalibrate your own expectations. Remember that this isn’t about accruing steps on your activity-tracking device. It’s about fostering a love for the outdoors in your kids. Let them set the pace, and if they want to stop and watch a bug, let them.
  • Estimate distance. Most experts suggest kids should be able to go a half mile for each year of age. So a six-year-old, in theory, should be able to handle a 3-mile hike. However, you need to add to that equation factors like elevation gain, hunger levels and your child’s frame of mind and disposition. Don’t push it. If a hike is a positive experience, kids will come back for more.
  • Have a goal. For my children, motivation is all about the destination, not the journey. It’s important for them to know we are heading someplace. We try to always have our hikes reach a waterfall or an old mining site or a high-alpine lake.

Keep a Nature Journal
We encourage our kids to bring along nature journals on hikes and for sketching at the campsite. Over the years, the journals have served as a way to preserve precious memories. We all love to look back at rubbings they did of a geodetic survey marker at the summit of Mount Champlain on Maine’s Isle au Haut and the sketches of oversize lobster claws found on the beach.

At least one study suggests that the simple act of drawing a dragonfly in a nature journal can enhance the outdoor experience. When college students were asked to keep nature journals for a semester, 74 percent of respondents said that the project increased their awareness of nature and 68 percent said it changed the way they thought about nature.

  • Simple Tools: Any unlined notebook can serve as a nature journal, but a hard-back spiral-bound book that lies flat is best. Pack a small box of pencils, colored pencils and crayons.
  • What Is That? Field guides are handy for identifying flora and fauna, but we sometimes look up animals and plants online at home afterward to label sketches with scientific Latin names. It makes children feel like real scientists. It’s a proud moment when your kid says, “Oh, this bark here? It’s Betula papyrifera.”
  • Prints and Rubbings: Create beautiful impressions by coloring the backside of a leaf with wide-tipped markers and pressing the leaf onto a journal page. Use the broad side of an unwrapped crayon to make rubbings of tree bark or trail signs.
About Helen Olsson

Helen Olsson is the author of "The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids." She is the editor-in-chief of Epic Life magazine and a former executive editor at Skiing magazine. Olsson's stories have appeared in The New York Times, Elevation Outdoors, Ski Magazine, and Women's Sports & Fitness. She blogs about getting outdoors with kids at maddogmom.com.

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