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