When my husband and I decided to start a family, we promised ourselves that having kids wouldn’t mean abandoning our active lifestyle.

We knew we’d have to make adjustments, but we also believed that children provide more reasons than ever to get outdoors. Research shows that time spent in nature improves children’s sensory skills, increases attention spans and enhances social and emotional development. It’s also just a lot of fun.

One of our favorite activities is camping. It’s a great way to travel, and it provides a wealth of memories, from gazing up at the countless stars and listening to the creatures of the night, to making s’mores around a campfire. Doing it together as a family can be priceless.

And baby makes three

We started our oldest daughter camping when she was still a baby. We bought a family sleeping bag and tucked her between us to keep her warm at night. During the day, we’d tote her about in a baby carrier, same as we’d do in the city. On biking trips, she’d ride nicely in a trailer, often napping.

As kids become more mobile (and fearless) camping can become a bit more worrisome, because there’s no way to “toddler proof” the outdoors. But that also provides great opportunities to teach important lessons. Fire is hot, so you stay away. Always keep close to Mom or Dad. If the stick or rock is sharp, handle with care so you don’t get cut. When we found ourselves near a cliff or steep hill, we’d make sure to hold our child’s hand or carry her in a backpack.

A few years ago, while paddling to our campsite, our two-year-old just wouldn’t sit still, so we tried some experiential learning. We had her feel the cold water with her little hands and feet and offered to let her float alongside the boat in her life jacket. That was all much more persuasive than our telling her not to tip the canoe.

Lessons learned close to home

During the first years, we generally stuck to drive-in campsites and made sure to have a quick way to get back home. We stuck to nearby parks with access to basic shopping, in case we forgot some essential gear. You don’t need to spend lots of money but having the right gear is critical. On one of our early trips, we failed to plan for rain, necessitating a quick run to the nearby thrift store for a rain jacket for our one-year-old. It rained every day, but our daughter stayed dry.

Layers are important for campers of all ages, but more so for kids who heat up and cool down quickly depending on their activity. Avoid cotton clothes, as they hold moisture, and bring extra items, because kids will always get wet. On a recent spring camping trip to Lake Maria State Park, our kids were thrilled by the “private waterfall” of snow melt runoff a few feet from our site. Soon, though, their shoes and socks were soaked with ice-cold water. Luckily, I had dry socks for them, but no extra shoes, so they had to stay put the rest of the evening. They learned the consequences of getting wet. I learned to always have extra shoes, and maybe even rain boots, when camping in the spring.

A hungry kid makes an unhappy camper

Food and water are the next most important elements of a camping trip. “Hangry” kids make for unhappy campers – you and them. Always pack extra food. I make sure to bring plenty of snacks, stuffing some in my daughters’ pockets to teach them to manage their own needs on a hike. Make sure you know where to get drinking water. We like to have a big water tote at our campsite so that something to drink is readily available and we stay hydrated on hot summer days.

Great fun and well worth it

I’m always surprised to hear concerns about kids getting bored while camping for a weekend. Kids will find a million things to do outdoors. And if that’s not enough, Minnesota state parks feature year-round naturalist programming, as well as hands-on exhibits. Most state parks also allow you to check out items such as fishing tackle, binoculars and handheld GPS devices for finding geocaches.

The benefits of including our children in our outdoors lifestyle have far outweighed any extra effort. Our kids are growing up with an understanding of and appreciation for the natural world and loving every minute. The skills they’ve learned on our outings have given them confidence and courage. And Mom and Dad? We get to enjoy doing what we love with those we love most.

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