To read the first two stories in the series, click on the following links for Warm sleepers are happy sleepers and Baby Adventures.
We are in full on preschooler mode right now with a three year old who loves the outdoors. Most of the suggestions below come from our own adventures camping with our son. Friends have also been generous with additional advice that I'll share. If you have older children, many of the following suggestions will be practical for you as well.
The best toys to bring camping
Bring a sand pail, shovel, and toy cars/dump trucks/diggers, etc. - no more toys needed. Seriously, toddlers can play with these toys in the sand, dirt, water, mud, rocks, with leaves, pine needles, or wood chips. It's the simplest solution for entertainment when camping. We went on a two week camping trip last summer with nothing else other than a pail, shovel and toy truck. We also brought a few books and the portable DVD player for down time but that was it. Never did we wish we had brought more toys.
|This dump truck was my son's favourite camping toy last summer|
A balance bike, tricycle, scooter or other ride-on toy for touring around the campground
Most children 3+ will enjoy being able to explore the campground with their friends and family on some kind of bike or ride-on object. We just got our son a Strider bike and are very excited to watch him learn to ride it this summer.
|My son's orange Strider bike|
- Plastic golf clubs (with larger balls for toddlers)
- Soccer balls
- Beach balls
- Little balls, big balls - any kind of ball!
- Hockey sticks with balls
- T-ball set
Those are just some suggestions. Go down to your local toy store or department store and look around - there's tons of fun stuff for kids.
|Many campgrounds have mini-golf courses|
Other toys that encourage creative outdoor play
We have a set of foam bath letters and numbers that we like to use for scavenger hunts. Check out the story I wrote on our ABC Scavenger Hunt. Another idea I got while surfing Pinterest one day was to take animal figurines outside. Every family usually has a collection of plastic animals so why not take them outside to climb trees, logs, and play in the sand.
Some other items you can bring to help your kids explore nature and have fun outside:
- A butterfly net
- A bug collector jar or case
- A magnifying glass
- Scavenger hunt maps
- Bags for collecting treasures
- Child-friendly cameras
- Sidewalk chalk
- Glow sticks for night time explorations
|Butterfly nets are also good for collecting rocks|
We aren't a very crafty family so I can't offer many suggestions here but the simplest idea I see pop up on blogs all the time is to take the kids out on a nature hike with a bag for collecting interesting items they find. When you return to camp, have the kids glue their items on a piece of construction or poster paper. When they go home, they will have a souvenir from this camping trip.
|Everything is interesting to a toddler - even old leaves|
Preschoolers and school aged children will love playing card games and board games while camping. Bring a favourite game along or make it a family tradition to buy a new game each summer for the season's camping trips.
|This game of snakes and ladders was very popular on a recent backcountry trip|
- Water guns
- An inflatable wading pool for campgrounds that don't have a lake to swim in (also works for bathing small children)
|Water fun at camp (Photo: G.Duncan)|
Entertaining the troops
For many people, camping is all about sitting around the campfire with a beer in hand, reading a book maybe, or playing endless games of scrabble and crib. Once you have kids though, the days of relaxing in your camp site are over. Your kids want to be kept active. They want to move. Below are the best ways I can suggest to entertain the troops while camping, from the toddler to the teenager.
- Playing at a lake
- Playing at a playground
- Playing with friends (simple games of tag or hide and seek work well)
Other useful items to bring
- A hammock
- Child sized lawn chairs (my son used his to eat off the picnic table benches) - alternately, see photo below for how to use a booster seat when camping.
- A portable potty for night time use or for kids who are afraid to use an outhouse
|Lotsa fun in a hammock|
|Perfectly sized lawn chair to eat off the picnic bench|
|Very creative idea for camp dining (Photo: G. Duncan)|
We always bring lots of books with us when we go camping. We choose books our son can read by himself that have sound panels or some other interesting feature so that he can read in the tent before bed by himself or occupy himself quietly while we are busy with camp chores.
We also bring our portable DVD player with us in case our son wakes up at some ungodly hour or needs to unwind before bed in the tent. Last summer we'd put him in the tent watching his favourite shows for half an hour and we'd sit outside to read. We'd check in on him and every time - fast asleep, his show still playing. We even bring the player backpacking with us. It isn't really all that heavy and it's indispensable for early mornings. (Editor's Note: jump ahead to 2017 and most people would bring a tablet or iPad of some kind instead!)
For other down time ideas, consider sticker books, colouring books, play set books (we have a Thomas the Tank Engine play set that comes with a fold-out map and little trains to play with), or crafts.
|Down time with Daddy|
The best secret
Go with friends! A child who has a friend to play with will be content to run around with their friend all day long (especially if they are old enough to go to the playground or ride their bikes around on their own). Meanwhile you can hang out at the campfire with the other adults and enjoy some quiet time. If the kids aren't old enough to play on their own, parents can take turns doing playground duty, accompanying the kids on bike rides, and supervising scavenger hunts.
Another thing that we discovered on a backcountry trip is that pre-teens and teenagers make excellent buddies at camp! They might not be formally babysitting your younger children but they can certainly take a gang of tots to the playground or organize a game of tag. Most toddlers love older children and will want to follow them around all day.
|Everything's better with friends|
|Pairing tots and teens|
|Tag around the campfire|
Do you have any other suggestions for camping with toddlers and preschoolers?
Next in this series on Family Camping Made Easy: camp hygiene and bathing.