Something almost magical takes place when kids are transferred from their natural habitat indoors to nature’s habitat outdoors. Perhaps you begin to see signs that they are in their element in this wilderness environment. After all, kids have been known to act like wild animals occasionally, despite your best taming efforts. Out here, imaginations – and the kids they belong to – are allowed to run wild and free. There’s magic in the air. Everything feels right in the world!
My family has experienced this magic. Camping provides an organized opportunity to embrace all the benefits of the great outdoors. Not only is it an inexpensive getaway, but the flexibility is priceless. You can choose a nearby campground (think Pocahontas State Park), and camp any month of the year (four Virginia State Parks are open year-round). You can invest in your own equipment, find great second-hand deals, or borrow or rent. The pets can even tag along. You have the option to go unplugged and truly retreat, or opt for electricity and cell service to stay connected to the outside world while reconnecting with the world outside.
We are almost halfway through our mission of camping at every Virginia State Park. Trust me, the benefits far outweigh the work.
Health Benefits Are Plentiful
According to the outdoor ministry, kidsoutdoorzone.com, the average kid today spends forty minutes a week outside and seventy hours a week in front of an electronic screen. City living, electronics, and a lack of mentorship in outdoor skills and adventure has created an unhealthy gap between kids and the outdoors.
We all know that active play and exercise are healthier than sedentary screen time. But did you also know that according to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor levels of air pollutants can be two to five times higher (and occasionally, one hundred times higher) than outdoor levels? So, while lungs are strengthened through outdoor cardio activities, such as hiking, swimming, and tree-climbing, they are also being purified by that fresh air.
Camping also builds character. We’ve noticed the development of a very important trait in our camping kids: perseverance. When tackling tasks like starting a fire with flint and steel or taking a long hike, the kids learn how to keep going and build up their endurance. The fruits of this labor were evident during a visit to Disney World, where the kids didn’t complain about the miles of walking. Plus, their water reservoir packs were just as valuable at a theme park as they were out on the trails.
Educational Benefits Abound
Nature is a classroom chock-full of amazing learning opportunities, and our parks make excellent teachers. We have visited many outstanding nature centers and engaged in ranger-guided activities. At Natural Tunnel State Park, the kids borrowed naturalist packs that were filled with items to help them collect and identify insects. If bugs aren’t your thing (that’s me!), at Fairy Stone State Park you can dig for unique cross-shaped fairy stones (staurolite). At Westmoreland State Park, visit Fossil Beach to hunt for shark’s teeth. The kids proudly display jars of their collections in our sunroom. Except for the bugs, who, to their relief (if bugs can be relieved!) and mine, are left behind.
Our kids have enjoyed learning survival skills, such as starting a fire, safely using a knife, and baiting a hook. While hiking, they’ve learned how to identify snakes, rocks, plants, and animal tracks. Campsite setup has taught them the value of organizational skills, responsibility, and working as a team. They’ve honed their social skills, too, making friendships that have turned into pen-pal relationships. And let’s not forget about geography, astronomy, and history. Staunton River State Park, an official International Dark Skies Park, is a great place for using a telescope. At many state parks and the areas surrounding them, learning about history is fun. Our kids especially enjoyed the reenactment at Natural Tunnel’s Wilderness Road Blockhouse.
Family-Bonding and Memory-Making
Some of my favorite memories from my childhood involve traveling in my grandparents’ motorhome. We camped on East Coast beaches and traipsed through the West. I quickly became mesmerized by this form of adventure, and my passion for camping carried on into adulthood. For my family, the bonds created in the great outdoors are unbreakable. There’s something about intentionally slowing down and being removed from the distractions of everyday life that produces unique opportunities.
Whether you’re in a tent, cabin, or camper, sharing a small space brings family members together – literally and figuratively. Throw in unstructured creative play, like hiking, bike-riding, swimming, boating, fishing, board-gaming, story-telling, and cooking and eating by campfire, and you have the ingredients for a healthy, educational bonding experience. I know my kids will never forget taking second place in the annual Avalanche Ice Cream Challenge at Twin Lakes State Park, encountering wild ponies while hiking at Greyson Highlands State Park, or making hiking sticks at Hungry Mother State Park.
It may be the freshness of the outdoors, the fragrant smoke of a campfire dinner, or dancing fireflies that fill the air, but it certainly feels like magic. These may be the moments our kids reminisce about years from now. Or better yet, these could be the moments that build a legacy as they carry on the tradition with their kids. And to parents, that is one of life’s greatest joys!