Simply MJ

by Mary Jane Butters

Take a Kid Camping -- Kids need to be outside. Camping is a great way to develop their young minds, with the added benefit of prying them from television and video games.

Gathering firewood is a great way to entertain kids when you first arrive at your campsite. Show them the difference between dry and wet wood. Teach them to collect various sizes of wood, from small and thin to big and fat. They generally will be able to gather enough wood to start your campfire, though you will likely be in charge of getting larger pieces that may require cutting or splitting.

Let them help set up the tent, arrange the eating area and organize other gear. Talk to them about the importance of finding a rock-free area to sleep on, and which logs are most comfortable for sitting; show them how to angle stakes into the ground to secure the tent.

If wood fires are not allowed (which may happen later in the summer), let the children help set up the gas or propane stove. Show them the different parts, their functions and how to work the stove safely. The mechanics involved are sure to interest an inquisitive mind.

Help your kids search the area for bugs, insects and plants. Bring a book to help both you and the kids identify the organisms. Be sure to show them poisonous plants, like ivy, oak, and sumac. (They might not even notice that you are guiding them through a science lesson.) Let them clip specimens and preserve them in a book or plant press. They will likely have a favorite, which can inspire a lifetime of intrigue.

Give them a bit of geologic history to go with the rocks they will inevitably hoard. Geology lessons are fun when kids discover them on their own. They may even find a lucky rock or gem, such as a garnet.

If you're camping near a lake or stream, take the kids fishing. Try to make it a fishing hole with lots of catchable fish, like brookies or bluegills.

Make sure everyone uses sunscreen and wears a floppy hat. Spray-on sunscreen can help with kids who won't sit still for lotion. Wear hats that have a dark color under the brim. It will absorb sunlight, instead of reflecting it back into little faces.

When the rain comes, show them how water finds the path of least resistance (hopefully not to your tent). Point out the distorted water color caused by the dirt and rocks it erodes from the ground.

And no camping trip is complete without making s'mores over a campfire. Graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate bars, and sharp sticks are all that's required. Even if you eat healthy foods the rest of the time, this is one occasion most people agree it's okay to splurge.

The experience of Robert, a 15-year-old from Sheridan, Wyo., reminds us all to pack candles and marshmallows whenever we go camping. Robert remembers a camping trip in the Cloud Peak Wilderness when he was 12. He and his brother had just set the tent when rain poured onto them like a glass of water spilling over a table. Unable to build a fire with wet wood, they ended up roasting several marshmallows over a candle flame, being extra careful with their makeshift campfire.

Card games, checkers and chess are some other forms of entertainment easy to pack. Or you could read a book -- though ghost stories probably aren't the best topic for kids, especially at night. Stick to adventure stories; Huck Finn, John Muir and Sitting Bull are inspiring characters to read about in the wild.

Make sure the kids have rain gear, extra clothes, proper-fitting sleeping bags and stocking caps. The nights get cold, no matter what the time of year. Stuff an extra jacket or shirt in the bottom of sleeping bags. That reduces the space their bodies need to heat and keeps their feet warm. Teach them about wearing a stocking cap to keep their heads warm.

The adult(s) should sleep on the edge of the tent if possible. Dew, rain and condensation from breathing sometimes collect on the tent's walls. It is better for the moisture to collect on adults, whose bodies retain heat better; a camping experience can be ruined if it is spent wet and shivering.

Kids fall in love with the mystery and discovery of the outdoors. By varying your camping spots, you feed both their minds and their spirit. After learning about the gifts nature has to offer, they might even donate their boring video games to charity.

Publication date: 05/08/03