We always advocated that being outside is its own reward; that kids can be entertained with a minimum of ‘toys’ while in Nature’s Playground. Â And while we still stand by that, it’s also true that a few simple props can greatly enhance any camping trip–especially ones that last a few days.
Here’s a list of our favorite camping gadgets. Â If your kids are especially short on attentiveness, space these out over a few days for even greater enjoyment.
- BinocularsÂ Whether it’s to view the night sky or the moon, magnify a spider (turn your binoculars upside down), or check out the birds in the trees above camp, binoculars are a great addition to any bag of camping goodies. Â With adult supervision, any pair will work or you can buy your kids their own pair fairly inexpensively. Â Look for ones with low magnification, wide field of view, not too heavy or considerÂ a pair specific to kids. Â I’ve been drooling over these made by Bresser. Â They ship from Germany. Â For older kids, invest in a pair that is durable and will last awhile (but still not too expensive). Â I like these Pentax binoculars. Â We wrote a post a few years back on teaching a kid how to use binoculars.
- Whittling tools Â Hours of fun, and with the added danger of a trip to the emergency room! Â Just kidding… sort of. Â Buy a thumb guard, or put a leather glove on the hand holding the carving wood to reduce the chance of injury. Â If you want to splurge, get a beginner’s set of wood-carving tools. Â Otherwise set them free with a pocket knife (there are many good pocket knives for young outdoorsmen, but I will forever be partial to Old Timer’s because it was my first). Â A good beginner project is a marshmallow roasting stick. Â Also fun are flutes. Â You can also buy blocks of woodÂ for beginners, or give your novice a bar of ivory soap and see what emerges.
- Shovel and pail Â There is no end to the uses for a shovel and pail. Â For a pail, the simple brightly colored ones you find at the dollar store will suffice. Â But swap out the plastic shovel that comes with it for something more durable. Â Transport frogs, haul water, fill with dirt, wear it on your head, sit on it–pails are good for so many things. Â Add a shovel and the possibilities are infinite.
- Plant press Â We covered how to make your own plant press in a different post. Â You can also buy them from some outdoor’s stores. Â Press flowers, leaves, orÂ ChristmasÂ ornaments for December. Â Bring along some field guides for flowers in the area. Â Props like plant presses teach your children to really pay attention to the world beneath their feet.
- Black-lighting supplies Â When the sun has gone down, string up a white sheet between two trees and put a UV-emitting light in front of it. Â Within 20 minutes you’ll have amazing moths and beetles flocking to you. Â Catch them for an insect collection, or look at them with a microscope or magnifying glass and let them go. Â If they’re moving too fast, put them in a plastic container or jar and set them in the cooler for ten minutes. Â The bug won’t die, but will be sluggish enough for easy viewing until it warms up again (usually about ten minutes).
- Bubbles Â Make your own heavy duty solution in camp or buy a bottle of the usual stuff on the way out of town. Â Either way, bubbles are an easy way to pass hours of time. Â And with pipe cleaners, yarn, and straws, kids can make their own bubble wands in camp.
- Kite Â If camping in an area with few trees (i.e. much of the desert southwest), kites are fun for adults and children alike. Â Splurge for a fancy acrobatic one, or make one out of whatever is on hand. Â Kites can turn a miserably windy day in camp into a wonderful afternoon in the wind.
- Disposable camera Â Buy a few cheap disposable cameras from the grocery store and hand them out to your kids. Â Let them take pictures of camp for the weekend. Â If they lose the camera, it only cost you a few dollars, and if they waste all the film taking pictures of their nostrils, well… it only cost you a few dollars. Â And sometimes you’ll get a great and unexpected shot to memorialize the trip.
- Slingshot Â Lindsey brought one of these on a trip to the desert a year ago. Â ‘Nuff said.
- Fishing polesÂ Â Does it matter if they catch anything? Â Not really. Â The fun is in the act of fishing. Â There is some innate enjoyment most humans seem to find in tossing bait into a body of water and waiting to see what notices. Â Most department stores now carry kid-sized fishing rods for pretty cheap.
- Portable microscope or magnifying glass Â Dissecting microscopes are great for viewing the smaller of nature’s creatures. Â No slides or cover slips required. Â If you get aÂ fairly inexpensive one, it’s easy to set up on the picnic table for viewing all camping-trip long. Â Or purchaseÂ a nicer oneÂ and pack it carefully! Â We once caught a Jerusalem cricket that was munching on its latest prey. Â Under the scope it was both horrifying and fascinating. Â I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t help but be thankful I was human and not a small bug. Â If you can’t get your hands on a microscope, bring along a decent magnifying glass. Â Note that some dissecting scopes need to be plugged in in order for the stage to be illuminated. Â You can just use a flash-light of course, or come prepared with an adapter for the car.
- Geologic hammer and loupe Â And safety glasses or sunglasses. Â Pounding on rocks until they crack is still one of my husband’s favorite activities. Â You never know what you’ll find inside. Â Crystals, fossils, geodes, or just pretty swirls or bits of sparkle. Â A true geologists hammer is as cheap as a fishing rod and just as fun, and they come in many sizes. Â Teach your kid to keep their hands away from the rock on which they intend to pound, and make sure (INSIST) Â that they (and everyone near them) covers their eyeballs. Â Bring along a loupe (an extra fancy magnifying glass) to look at the crystals up close, or throw them under the dissecting microscope.
- Drawing supplies Â A blank piece of paper and some brand new drawing supplies can inspire even the most reluctant artist in nature. Â Sketch the scent from camp with black and white pencils. Â Trace the outline of a leaf and fill in the details with colored pencils. Â Watercolor by dipping your brush in a body of REAL water. Â Try your hand at oil painting the trees in camp (heck, bring an easel and channel your inner Monet!) Â Paint a piece of wood or a rock from camp with poster paints. Â Emphasize artistic license and abstraction so that nobody gets frustrated when their painting doesn’t look like quite like the real thing.
- Pellet gun Â With adult supervision (depending on the age), marksmanship contests with a pellet gun can be very fun. Â Pellet guns are lightÂ Â nough for even young campers, and are a great way to teach gun safety with little danger of someone getting hurt. Â Set up a paper plate in a bush with a good back-drop, and bring some markers to keep track of who fired where. Â For added fun, set up some animal crackers on a distant hill and go ‘big game’ hunting. Â Teach your kids about the difference between shooting squirrels for fun and shooting a deer for meat while you’re at it.
- Frisbees and soft balls Â The fun is obvious. When I am catching a frisbee or throwing a baseball in the summer, I always find myself wondering why I don’t do it every night all summer long. Â Once a child has the hand-eye coordination to catch and throw an object, games of toss hold another 20 years of appeal, at least.
- Nets and a viewing cage Â Fish netsÂ andÂ insect netsÂ can provide hours of entertainment to the young naturalist who isn’t so in to plants. Â Whether it’s catching tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, lizards, crabs, or bugs, nets force the shyer of nature’s creatures to get up-close and personal. Â Bring a basin for aquatic creatures, or a plastic cage for terrestrial catches. Â This is a great way to teach childrenÂ how to respect small creatures. Check out ourÂ post on catching aquatic macroinvertebratesÂ for more tips.
Which of your favorite camping props did we miss?