Sunday, May 06, 2012

Family Camping Made Easy - Preschool Adventures

Continuing with my series on Family Camping Made easy, I now bring you - camping with toddlers and preschoolers.
To read the first two stories in the series, click on the following links for Warm sleepers are happy sleepers and Baby Adventures.

I'm not sure I'll be able to go any higher than toddler and preschool adventures because that's kinda where our experience ends.  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.  Otherwise, I encourage you to check out Tiffany's blog at A Little Campy.  The name of her blog says it all - she is a true camping mom with years of experience.  I also encourage you to follow Alyssa's series on camping over at The Kid Project.  I know she plans to cover the topic of potty training while camping and I definitely need to check that one out!  I won't be offering much advice there - sorry.

The best toys to bring camping

Sand toys

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.  For more information on balance bikes, check out the review Jen did on the Strider bike over at Velo Mom.  You can also check out some reasons  for starting your child on a balance bike on the Strider website.

My son's orange Strider bike

Sporting equipment

  • 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
  • Frisbees
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
  • Binoculars
  • Scavenger hunt maps
  • Bags for collecting treasures
  • Child-friendly cameras
  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Bubbles
  • Glow sticks for night time explorations
The Parent Map website has some great outdoor play ideas as well as printable scavenger hunts.
For more scavenger hunt ideas and a fabulous printable picture scavenger hunt for younger children, go to Greening Sam and Avery

Butterfly nets are also good for collecting rocks

Discovering nature

Craft supplies

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.  For great outdoor craft suggestions, check out Debi's blog Go Explore Nature

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.
For outdoor themed board games check out the Acorn Naturalists website.

Water Fun

  • 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.

  • Fishing
  • Canoeing
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Climbing
  • Playing at a lake
  • Playing at a playground
  • Playing with friends (simple games of tag or hide and seek work well)
I am certainly no expert on many of the areas above so check out the following blogs if you are interested in these topics:
Climbing - Crag Mama, Climb run lift mom, The Kid Project
Fishing - A Little Campy
Biking - Velo Mom
Canoeing - Backcountry with the kids

Family hike
A game of toddler tag around the tree
What child doesn't like playing in the sand or water at a lake?


 Other useful items to bring

  • A hammock
  • Child sized lawn chairs (my son used his to eat off the picnic table benches)
  • Booster seats for young kids (you can strap them on the picnic bench sideways and then attach a tray)
  • 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)

Down time

 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 got a Tag Junior by Leap Frog for Christmas and it now comes on all our adventures.  The Tag reader is small, light, and takes up next to no room.  The books are also small and light.  It's a great reading system because toddlers and preschoolers can read by themselves, allowing everybody to have some down time.  Check out the link above if you haven't heard of the Tag Reader before.

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. 

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.

For a great list of nature themed books, visit the Greening of Sam and Avery website.  There's an amazing list of books on all themes of nature and you'll even find board book suggestions.

Down time with Daddy
(Photo: G. Duncan)

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

Camping with buddies

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.


  1. You always have such amazing pictures (on top of great info!) Thanks for the mention.

    1. Thanks Jen. I'm certainly no professional photographer but it's a fun hobby. I've been working on my photography since I started writing because I realize that the photos and stories go hand in hand.

  2. Lots of great suggestions here. Would you believe we are taking our first road trip this summer, which will be chock full of camping adventures? Hope to have much more advice come September. :-) Thanks for the shout out.

  3. Lots of great camping information! Thanks for the shout out.

    1. Thanks Tiffany and you're welcome.

  4. You are so making me miss living in Colorado . . . sigh. Great article.

  5. This is awesome! Thanks so much for including me. We are taking our first backpacking trip with the girls this summer and everyone is super excited. A lot of the packing will have to be cut down since our youngest will still need to be carried some of the way...should make the camping part a bit more interesting when we don't have some of our fall back favorite toys along! Just means mom and dad will have to get more creative.

    1. You're welcome Abbie. You have many good suggestions and activities. I'll be writing a story soon on backpacking.

  6. Love all your suggestions here! We overpacked toys for the first couple years for our two boys. Finally when they spent a whole trip playing with an empty coffee can, we gave up and pared back. My boys (4&7 now) love their lightsabers and we always bring bubbles. Plus I pack a small bag for each with a pad of paper, some colouring sheets, activity sheets and a pencil case for each with pencil crayons, highlighters, stickers, post-it notes, etc. They add some of their favourite books, and it comes in very handy on a rainy afternoon in the tent! (So does the iPad with some new movies!).

    1. Thanks Jen. Great tips.
      Glad to hear that others bring movies too. It's been recently suggested that anything of the sort doesn't belong in nature. I figure whatever it takes to keep the little ones calm and happy along with a healthy dose of running, climbing, exploring, and hiking.

  7. I just stumbled upon your website and think it's fantastic. I am also a mom in Calgary and recognize some of the places you have been. I'm just starting to plan my camping for the summer with my 4 and 1 year olds and this post will come in handy, for sure! Thank you. :)

    1. Thanks. I plan to write lots more about camping again this summer and if you look back on my posts last summer from May through September, you'll get an idea of our fav. campgrounds in the area.

  8. We car camp with 6 under the age of 12! Last year I found that the totes I hauled the food to camp with made great water play and bath tubs for the toddlers.

  9. We use the totes used to haul food to our car camping trips as toddler water play and bath time. And it is amazing how long a toddler will "water the flowers" using a 4 oz Dixie cup and a water spigot on a slow drip. ;-)

  10. In the picture of a dad reading to his three little ones, 15 of the 19, what tent is in the background? It is grey and kinda a burnt orange color. With our second one on the way we are needing to upsize a little for next years trip and need the vestibule on the front for the dogs.

    Love reading your posts!! Makes me wish I'd been a bit more adventurous, and mobile, for this year's family camping trip to the mountains but at 8 months pregnant I chose some pretty safe campgrounds where the car was never too far away. I feel quite proud of myself for tenting and our 17 month old loved it even more this year than last. The one bonus to being very pregnant is that I was never cold and kept everyone toasty warm in the tent at night.

    1. Hi Tasha, the tent is our Asolo tent. It's a 4 person tent. I think this is it.

    2. Actually, this is the link to the exact tent we have. Ours is a little different than the current Astro 3 but pretty much the same.

  11. I have an 8 year old son with cereal palsy but has never ride on a bike and we can't afford a special bike. Can someone help give me information. Thanks

    1. Hi Jennifer, I'd suggest you contact Jen with the Axel Project. They donate Strider balance bikes to families who perhaps can't afford them.
      There are large Strider bikes that are designed for kids with disabilities. They are larger for the older kids who require a simple bike that doesn't have pedals.
      If you are from Canada, please email me directly and I will see what I can do from my end. I have a few connections here.
      My address can be found on the "contact me" tab of this page.

    2. This is the website for the Axel Project.

  12. I Can not explain.How much beautiful pictures i have ever seen in the past 2 years.
    thanks for sharing

  13. Actually I really like the way you guys have planned everything to make that family camping so amazing. Like the images and looking forward to arrange a similar campaign with my family as well. Thanks a lot for a nice contribution.

  14. It was such a informative and great writing and writer, you have done an excellent writing here. It was full of information, you describe everything very clearly and here have some information which is very useful for family tour.

  15. This is really an awesome post for adventure loving people. Many of us think, “Oh, My children is growing up. I can’t go along with my kid” They normally think that camping or outing literally ends after a little kid. So after reading this post, the thoughts will change for them. Love all the suggestions that you given below. Because I found each and every suggestions very supportive. Specially the sizable chairs, tables etc are one of the best. So, it’s time to make camping with my kid!

  16. I have read your post. Very good idea for a camping. Informative and interesting which we share with you so i think so it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the efforts. I am tiring the same best work from me in the future as well

  17. I like your article. I think, family camping is wonderful idea. I love it. Thank for sharing good this post