You may not realize it, but you and your kids live just steps from an extraordinary campground. It offers picnic areas, sites for your tent, and access to fascinating and educational nature features. And it's right outside your backdoor -- literally. In today's fast-moving, electronic, constantly connected world, it might be difficult for your kids to imagine that fun can be had in a natural environment ("What? No screen to look at?!"), but with some fun ideas in mind, and some planning and prep, you can show everyone otherwise.
Prepare for the Fun ...
Before the fun comes the planning and preparation. Think ahead and make a list of possible activities your family can do together at each step of the camping "trip," as well as what supplies you'll need and any prearrangements necessary for each activity. Supplies might include sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, flashlight (with extra batteries), cooking and eating utensils, water, plates, cups and napkins, a trash bag, camera, field guides (for identifying birds, insects, flowers or stars), magnifying glass and binoculars.
... And the Not So Fun
Also anticipate and try to avert any unpleasant surprises. Consider, for example, any little ones who have never spent a night outdoors. If fear of the darkness is a possibility for one of your tots, talk with her beforehand about nocturnal critters. Describe the sounds they may make and why -- always focusing on the wonder of it all. You might accompany her into the backyard at night on several occasions before the camping adventure, making a game of the night noises and allowing her to grow comfortable with them.
Set Up Camp
Begin the adventure by getting everyone involved in camp setup. Ask the kids to help with unpacking and setting up the campsite. Suggest they clear any rocks and sticks from the ground where the tent will be located. Then have the family work together to set up the tent. If you have no tent, no worries. Drape a simple blanket, tarp or sheet of plastic over a tree branch or clothesline and hold its corners down with stakes or rocks.
Foraging for Food
The shelter is ready, now it's time to forage for food. This is where the preparation beforehand comes in. You will have put fruit, berries and nuts in various small sandwich bags and placed them in the crannies of the yard and the branches of trees and bushes. (Make sure you remember where you placed each one!) Join your kids in a hunting-and-gathering trip, working together to find the snacks. Give subtle (or not-so-subtle) hints to help them hone in on any final few they're unable to find.
Show your kids that even their own backyard is a part of the world's ecosystem with a nature walk. Look for birds with binoculars. Turn over rocks and other objects, or dig into the dirt with a small hand spade to discover what insects lie beneath. Search for interesting plants or flowers, and gather leaves or unusual stones. Encourage your children to examine what they find with a magnifying glass, and have them try to identify each, using a reference book or field guide if necessary.
Games People Play
If it still isn't quite time for dinner yet, take the time to play together as a family. Attempt some of the old favorites like shadow tag or leap frog. Teach your children how to make string figures, such as the cup and saucer or cat's cradle. Or try rock jacks. Purchase small, shiny glass stones from a craft store or collect natural rocks. Have everyone sit on a blanket or other smooth surface and teach them how to play jacks with rocks.
To Catch a Fairy
Tell your children enchanting tales about fairies -- their history, behavior, appearance -- and then suggest trying to catch one. Craft a fairy trap with your children. Base it on the idea of the common St. Patrick's Day endeavor of trying to catch a leprechaun, but change the leprechaun lore and leprechaun-catching details to focus on fairies. Not only will the kids have fun constructing and decorating the trap, but setting it up and trying to catch a little fay will be a memory they long cherish.
Dinner Around the Campfire (or Grill)
It's hard to imagine a campsite without a campfire, so check the codes in your area to find out if an open fire is permitted. If so, follow all the safety rules -- and teach them to your little ones. If you'd prefer to avoid charring your grass, layer dirt or sand inside a fire ring and build the campfire on that. On the other hand, if actual fire is a no-go, a small grill makes an easy substitution. Then break out the buns, the meat and the appetites.
When the sun has set and the stars are out, join your kiddos in a search for nocturnal insects like moths and spiders. (Be aware and cautious of any that are dangerous in your area.) Ask them the names of what they find and to share their thoughts about them. Watch and listen for owls, bats or other creatures and have your children try to identify them. If the sky in your area is clear enough, point out the constellations to your kids and watch for shooting stars together.
Winding Down the Evening
As the evening slows and everyone is beginning to relax, gather around the campfire (or grill) and make a bedtime snack of sticky s'mores. (Keep the wet wipes handy!) Afterward, teach everyone some campfire songs. You might lead them in some silly classics like "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends." Or you might choose from more inspirational gems like "This Land Is Your Land," "Kumbaya" or "America, the Beautiful." And if you just can't remember any campfire songs, consider current pop hits.
And to Our Tent We Go
When night arrives, gather around the lantern or flashlight, wrap in sleeping bags and tell spine-chilling ghost stories (or tamer tales if there are less daring tots among you). And if, in the end, any kiddos are too frightened to stay outside the whole night, don't force them. Simply allow them a little more time to grow into the adventure. There will be other chances to share the joy of camping with your kids. After all, your backyard campground isn't going anywhere; it's always waiting right outside your door!