Imagine if you will...
"Dad! Dad! Wake up, Dad!"
"What? What's wrong?"
"Look up there! It's a huge owl! It keeps swooping down for me, Dad!"
"What owl? Sam, that's a tree branch, bobbing in the wind. Besides, it's outside the tent, and owls don't eat little boys. They swoop for mice."
"Really? Hey, you're right. It is a tree. It looked like a swooping owl, honest."
"It's okay. Just settle back in before you wake Tammy and your mom."
"But I was already awake, Daddy. I can't go to sleep."
"I'm too hot. And I can hear a hungry bear out there. Its stomach keeps going r-r-r-o-b-b-p-t."
"Tammy, slide out of your sleeping bag and you'll be cooler. That's not a hungry bear, sweetie."
"What does a hungry bear sound like, Daddy?"
"I don't know, Tammy--"
"Then how do you know it's not a bear?"
"Because I know it's a bullfrog."
"AACK! There are frogs? I HATE frogs! I can't sleep on that ground if frog legs are going to hop on me! Mom!!!"
"What on earth--?"
"There, now you woke your mother. Tammy, stop dancing around like that! You'll--"
"Ouch! Watch it! You jumped on my leg!" Sam slithered out of the middle of the tent, swatting at his sister's hopping feet at the same time.
"Sam, don't roll into the side of the tent! You know your Dad was short one tent pin. It will be down on top of us if we aren't careful."
"EVERYONE BE STILL!!!!"
Sob. Sigh. R-r-r-o-b-b-o-t.
Involvement and simulation
Ah, camping with children. It can be a rewarding family adventure, or a disaster of unprecedented magnitude. To swing the scales in favor of the adventure, a test-run camp-out in the back yard (or even your living room, if you're an apartment dweller with no yard) can make all the difference.
Starting with the packing, involve the children on every level. Together you can talk about what items are necessities and why, as well as how much room you have to transport all the gear. This exercise in itself may best explain to your 6-year-old why her life-sized stuffed panda bear can't tag along. Also, if you aren't using one already, you can begin to compile a permanent camping checklist to make the next trip go that much smoother.
Next comes travel time. Simulate this indoors, perhaps at a table or on the couch. Entertainment items that can be used in the care are the only ones that can be played. Keep a tally of how often your children opt for a change of activity, so that on the real trip you are prepared to keep boredom (i.e. "are we there yet?") to a minimum. Time potty breaks and "stops" for meals so that you will have a realistic view of how long it will take your family to reach your camping destination.
Practice and anticipate
Once you've "arrived" you will want to set up camp. Answer children's questions as they arise, and ask for their ideas for solutions if they are worried about things like what to do if it hails or what would happen if the tent fell down. This is also the ideal opportunity to get reacquainted with your camping gear, so that all essential items are present and in working order before you're in the big, lonely middle of the great outdoors.
The packing phase was intended to see to it that you had the food you needed and the equipment to cook it, as well as the utensils with which to eat it. The actual preparation, eating and cleanup will tell you what didn't get on the list that should have.
Lastly, night falls, and it's time to sleep. This is where the test run has its greatest payoff. Children's minds are amazing, and their inexperience will prompt questions that adults cannot always foresee. It's a great time to extinguish fears about sounds, shadows, bugs, wild animals, and darkness. If you do the test run far enough in advance, you'll have time to use books and tapes to explore the things that interest or concern your children.
Additionally, you can gauge what it takes to keep everyone comfortable. If one member of the family tends to overheat easily, perhaps a light blanket and floor padding would be better than a sleeping bag.
The rewards of camping are many. A backyard test camp can keep the few potential drawbacks from becoming big disasters. With proper planning, good communication and help from everyone in the family, you can enjoy camping and one another. After all, who doesn't love a happy camper?
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