Are you planning a camping trip with your kids and are wondering how the heck you will keep them entertained without Wifi, screens, and a mountain of toys?
As a mother who goes camping with my two kids often, trust me: You are underestimating your kids’ ability to entertain themselves – especially when allowed to explore unhindered in nature.
Do You Really Need Camping Activities for Your Kids?
Today’s parents are under huge pressure to organize activities for their children. We need to enroll them in extracurriculars so they develop life skills. Shuttle them to the zoo, science museums, botanical gardens so they can learn things which aren’t covered in the school curriculum….
All these activities supposedly show that we are “good” parents. But all this structured play may do more harm than good. It’s why kids have forgotten how to play. And, since kids aren’t used to coming up with their own activities, it’s no surprise they ask for screen time the moment an activity ends.
Let Your Children Get Bored
Instead of constantly coming up with activities for your kids, you should let your kids get bored.
As researcher Sandi Mann said to Time, boredom is “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied. If we can’t find that, our mind will create it.”
Simply put, let your children get bored and they will come up with their own games to play.
This in turn has numerous other benefits. Bored children are better at taking initiative and solving problems. They also learn self-control and are less likely to turn to drugs, alcohol, gambling and other addictions for stimulation. (3)
Your Kids Will Find Fun Camping Activities On their Own
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t bring some activities or entertainment for your kids on the camping trip. Just make sure you leave plenty of time for “doing nothing.” It is during this unstructured play time that your children will find what truly interests them.
What Toys to Bring Camping?
Most kids’ toys are designed to be one specific thing. It’s hard to get creative with these toys: A car is only a car. A tea set only a tea set. By contrast, open-ended toys are more ambiguous and can be used in multiple ways.
Nature is full of open-ended toys. A stick can be used as a sword, to make dolls, as a baseball bat… You’ll be surprised at what your kids come up with if you just let them play.
Other than a stuffed animal or two, I don’t let my kids bring toys on camping trips. Instead, we pack some open-ended camping toys. Most are actually more akin to supplies than toys.
These are the camping toys/supplies which we use most often:
- Specimen collection cups
- Bug-catching net
- Notepad and drawing supplies
This kit shown below has lots of cool things in it to stimulate outdoor exploring.
But Please Don’t Bring Screens!
If you bring screens, your kids will want to use them. They will whine, beg, and annoy you until you give in. But, if you leave the screens at home, they will find other ways to entertain themselves.
Even better, choose a campsite without electricity or Wifi so screens simply aren’t an option. Then you and your kids won’t be tempted to endlessly scroll instead of enjoying the nature around you.
30+ Ways to Entertain Your Kids While Camping
Here are some ways that my kids have entertained themselves while camping. All of these camping activities require ZERO prep and most can be done with just supplies from nature.
1. Build a Fort
There must be something in our DNA which makes kids love to build forts. Try to let your kids build the fort on their own, according to their own plan. If they ask for advice, then teach them about the types of wilderness shelters – like the A-frame and teepee shelters.
2. Searching for Insects
I’m love insects (especially beetles) and am a complete nerd about them. Since I never told my kids that insects are “gross” or “dirty”, they too love insects. We always have fun searching for insects while camping. It’s pretty easy: Just lift up dead logs or rocks to see which insects are underneath. Though please do be careful about lifting rocks when in snake country! Check out these photos of cool insects.
This insect book is awesome.
3. Nature Dolls
Acorn tops, beech nut shells, and a lot of flowers look like hats or skirts. My kids and I have fun turning these into finger puppets or making little dolls out of them.
4. Decorating Rocks
Bring some markers, paint, or nail polish and start decorating rocks. You can also use charcoal from the previous night’s campfire to draw on rocks (see #10)
5. Rock Installations
Here’s a camping activity for older kids – have fun making a rock installation artwork a la Andy Goldsworthy.
6. Nature Collection
Kids have a natural inclination to collect things. Give them collection bags and designate a place for them to display their collection.
7. Building a Campfire
One of the best parts of camping is making a campfire. Let your kids get involved. Simply gathering the firewood will keep them entertained for at least 30 minutes (though admittedly my daughter stopped wanting to help with this task after the umpteenth camping trip).
Don’t stop there though. Show them how to build a campfire. Remember that there are actually numerous different campfire lays. Start with the teepee lay and then show them other cool ones like a pyramid or star lay.
8. Dissecting Flowers
This is a favorite camping activity of my 2 year old and, even as an adult, I enjoy it too. We find cool flower buds and tear them open. It’s actually pretty exciting to see what’s inside. Some plants have curled up flowers. Others have large pearl-like seeds. Others have hundreds of tiny seeds which blow away in the wind.
*Don’t do this when camping somewhere with vulnerable flora. Many national and state parks prohibit you from picking or damaging flora in any way.
9. First Aid Bandaging
I always bring a first aid kit on camping trips (see the checklist here). My daughter love playing with the Ace bandage. She pretends her stuffed animal got injured and wraps it up. When she got a bit older, I taught her how to wrap a sprained ankle and even how to splint a leg. Not only does she have fun wrapping pretend injuries, but she’s actually learning valuable first aid skills.
10. Charcoal Drawing
Once last night’s campfire has completely cooled down, grab some charcoal from it and let your kids draw with it. Yes, their hands will get messy. 🙂 Luckily charcoal doesn’t stain.
11. Gathering Berries/Foraging
Both my two-year old and 10-year old love gathering berries. They could spend all day doing it. Just make sure you give them a talk about foraging safety before they start. In other words, make sure they know that they should never eat a plant unless they are 100% sure of what it is.
12. Make Boats
Here’s a fun STEM camping activity. Have your kids build boats out of sticks and leaves, using pieces of grass to tie the parts together or mud as “mortar.” Then have them float their boats down a stream.
13. Catching Animals
One of the reasons I love camping near water is you can usually find some creatures like frogs, newts, or water beetles to catch. Give your children a bowl and some cups and they will be entertained for hours. Below is an “ecosystem” my daughter caught from a lake on one camping trip.
14. Insect Catching and Collecting
I had an insect collection when I was a kid, so I wasn’t surprised when my daughter said she wanted to start one too. We bring specimen containers camping so she can collect and take home cool dead insects we find. Of course, you could just bring a net to catch and release live insects too.
15. Mud Sculptures
Clay is just a really nice type of mud. There’s no reason your kids shouldn’t use it to make cool sculptures. Let the sculptures dry in the sun. Or, if you are lucky enough to have really good clay soil at the campground, you might be able to harden them in the campfire.
Worried about all that mud? Here are 6 reasons you should let your kids get dirty.
16. Scavenger Hunt
It’s very easy to make your own camping scavenger hunt. Some items you can include are:
- Something purple
- Tree with smooth bark
- Y-shaped stick
- Animal tracks
- Red leaf
- Blooming flower
17. Pressing Flowers
Assuming that you aren’t in a fragile ecosystem where picking flowers isn’t allowed, making wildflower bouquets is great fun. My daughter and I press them in her notebook. Several of the pressed bouquets are now framed in our living room.
18. Card Games
A deck of cards is great to bring camping (especially for rainy days). Cards are small, compact, and there are dozens of games you can play with a standard deck.
19. Orienteering Treasure Hunt
Orienteering is a sport where you have to find locations on a map in the fastest amount of time. You can make your own orienteering course: just hang some treats around the campsite and mark them on the map. Better yet, let your kids make a treasure map that you have to follow. Your kids will have fun and also learn how to read a map.
20. Bucket Games
One of my go-to forms of camping entertainment for my toddler is buckets of water. I simply fill a few buckets with water, give her some spoons and cups, and she has fun pouring water from one bucket to the next. This is a super-easy camping activity and also works for at home too.
For older kids, you can use buckets for other games, like:
- Bucket ball toss
- Fill the bucket game using water and spongess (see instructions here)
- Mixing mud to make mud pies
21. Rock Bowling
My daughter made up this game on a camping trip when she was 6. She set up a bunch of small rocks on top of a larger rock sticking out of the ground. Then she stood back and tried to knock the rocks off with another rock (obviously making sure there was no one around to hit). Some other kids saw her playing and immediately joined in.
22. Exquisite Corpse Drawing Game
This is a game that my daughter and I play on camping trips and also when traveling. It was equally fun when she was 4 as it is now that she’s 10.
You take a piece of paper and the first person draws a head with neck, making sure the second person doesn’t see it. Then they fold the paper down so the head is hidden but just a bit of the neck is exposed. The second person then draws a body connected to the neck and folds down the paper, leaving just a bit of the body exposed. The final person draws the legs. You open up the paper to see your funny drawing.
23. Cleaning Up Litter
Show your kids some before/after photos from litter challenges to motivate them. Then put on some gloves, grab trash bags, and spend an hour doing something good for nature by cleaning up trash.
24. UpCycle with Trash
Unfortunately, there is often a lot of trash around campsites. Sometimes my daughter and I will make cool stuff out of the trash – like when we made this bunny sculpture from random stuff we found on a beach camping trip.
Slacklines are a lot of fun and are great for improving balance, posture, concentration and focus. Plus, it’s a good way for your kids to befriend other kids at the campground: as soon as you put up the slackline, a line of kids will appear wanting to try it!
26. Light Painting Photography
Wait until nighttime, put the camera on a low shutter speed, and start taking photos as you wave flashlights around. It’s also fun to do with sparklers.
27. DIY Obstacle Course
You probably won’t have to make this. Rather, your kids will see a bunch of rocks in a stream and try to hop on them to the other side. Or they will see a fallen log and try to balance walk across it. Your job is to step back and let them do this – even if it might mean they occasionally fall into the water (bring spare shoes or have them go barefoot!).
28. Jumping in Leaves
Playing in leaves is a great fall camping activity. No, you don’t have to bring a rake camping. Just gather up some long branches and use them as a broom to sweep up a big pile of leaves. Then have fun jumping in it with your kids.
29. Snowmen or Mud Men
In the photos below, we got some snow on a camping trip in May. It wasn’t enough to make large snowmen, but we did make these fun snow creatures. You could also easily do something like this with mud, rocks, or other nature items.
30. Daisy Chains
Teach your kids how to make daisy chains. Then take it a step further and see how many other natural items can be braided and twisted into crowns or hair decorations.
31. Make Mini Log Cabins
On one beach camping trip, my daughter (then 5 years old) made little “cabins” out of sticks. The sticks poking up off to the side are the “people” who live there.
I know these aren’t the most Instagram-worthy camping activities. But it goes to show that you don’t need to bring lots of toys or plan activities for your kids when camping. Left to their own devices, kids will come up with ideas, realize it with items around them, and use their imaginations to play with their creations.
It’s not your job isn’t to come up with the camping activities. Rather, it’s your job to step back and allow your kids to entertain themselves.
How do you entertain your kids when camping?