What Kids Learn When They Go Camping

Jun 8, 2016

Fresh air. Campfires. Starry skies. Mosquitoes. Camping!

Whether you’re a seasoned camper or new to the world of tents and tarps, camping is a great way to spend time outside with your family.

Beyond the fun and fresh air, camping can teach kids valuable life lessons about taking risks, respecting nature and being active.

“Camping offers a wide range of experiences [and] opportunities for self-discovery, learning and physical and mental wellnes,” says Omar McDadi, who works at Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto. It can also help boost kids’ self-esteem and give them a chance to creatively solve problems that wouldn’t arise at home—how do you built a fire when it’s raining? What’s the best way to transport water to your campsite?

Here are five things kids can learn when they go camping:

1. New ways to be active

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a trailer or a pup tent, camping means hard work and exercise. Hiking, swimming, exploring and canoeing are fun ways to be active as a family. Chores like gathering firewood, meal prep and setting up your campsite require lots of active movement.

Camping has a way of making work feel like a fun bonding activity.

“There’s always work to be done, like filling the water jug or collecting kindling. And pitching a tent? All hands on deck for that one, ” says Fiona Koo, a mother of two. “Camping helps teach my kids responsibility, teamwork and cooperation.”

For kids and grown-ups alike, camping has a way of making work feel like a fun bonding activity. It also gives little ones a sense of importance—depending on their ages, there are lots of tasks they can help with, from hanging bathing suits to dry to tying (or untying) knots to planning a family hike.

2. How to take risks and explore their own boundaries

“Camping has allowed my own children to grow as individuals,” says Rob Ridley, an outdoor educator. “[They] explore, investigate, solve problems and challenge themselves and each other.”

He has seen his 7- and 11- year daughters be more open and honest with each other, and with him, when they’re out on canoe trips. Their “tent talks” have been a way for him to learn more about his daughters lives—and their hopes and dreams.

Clark Hughes camps with his preschooler. “Camping forces us to do things outside of our comfort zones—get dirty, cook by fire, become wet in the rain and learn to roll with the punches,” he says. “We want to help our son realize we need to be open to different experiences and take risks to explore.”

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3. The joys of "unplugging"

Camping can mean "unplugging" from a highly structured timetable and switching to days dictated by the sun and the weather.

“Our children today are involved in so much—martial arts, before and after school programs, sports, dance and more,” says Ridley. “These activities are valuable, [but] they’re also often extremely rigid. They begin at a specific time, you rush to get everything in before your allotted time is up, and the rules are both clear and enforced.”

“In my mind, camping is the ultimate maker space.”

Outdoor time allows kids to set their own boundaries, to change the rules, to attempt new things and explore new spaces.

“Many [schools] are using maker spaces to promote tinkering, repairing, creating and imagining,” he says. “In my mind, camping is the ultimate maker space.”

Monika Fiema-Brown, a mother of two and a frequent camper, likes to let go of daily schedules. “Camping helps show our kids how important it is to rest and relax, and have some time away from all the things on the to-do list, which can be tough when we’re at the house.”

And on that other kind of unplugging: many families find it rewarding to leave tablets and smartphones at home, but camping doesn’t have to mean disconnecting digitally—in fact, tech offers lots of cool ways to explore nature.

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4. Understanding and respecting nature

The best way to learn about nature is to experience it. Camping offers unlimited opportunities to teach kids about science and nature. Plants, animals and insects abound—if you follow your child’s curiosity, you’ll find all kinds of things to explore.

Parents can explain why it’s important to not leave food around the campsite to avoid attracting bears, or how to recognize the call of a loon or coyote. When night falls, pick up a star chart and point out constellations. As you’re building a campfire, think about explaining the science of fire (and how to put one out). 

Many campsites have nature centres with exhibits, workshops and knowledgable staff. Make a visit part of your stay.

5. Backyards are beautiful

Not everyone can take their kids on a complicated canoe trip with extended portages (and no cell service).

Many families pitch tents a few feet from their cars at provincial parks. Some go even closer to home—backyard camping can be a great way for families to get a first taste of the outdoors.

This helps kids (and less-experienced parents) feel a bit more comfortable with the basics, from setting up a tent to getting used to strange nighttime sounds. While starting a campfire is probably out of the question, it does mean fully-furnished bathrooms are ready when nature calls.

And what about when you’re ready for the next step?

“Taking kids camping has never been more easy, accessible or affordable,” says Parks Canada’s Omar McDadi. “[There are a] range of programs available across the country aimed at providing kids and families with an introduction to camping at an affordable price.”

He suggests Parks Canada’s Learn to Camp program as an easy way for families to try a couple of nights in a tent without buying a lot of equipment or worrying they won’t be able to get a fire going.

Before your head out on your next camping trip—be if your first or your fiftieth—think about all the things your family will learn in the great outdoors!

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.