The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Health & Family

June 14, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Backyards perfect for camping with kids

JOPLIN, Mo. — When I was a kid, camping trips were huge affairs. We packed enough supplies to live comfortably in the wild of an overflowing campground, strolling past other campers and families similarly outfitted. It was nature, yes, but it was so crowded. While I enjoyed the trips back then, I now find myself longing for a camping trip in true wilderness. Somewhere off the map, secluded and completely, utterly natural.

But when I let my mind wander with the possibilities, I get hung up on technicalities. Having not camped for years, the idea of hauling our three small kids into the woods somewhere without amenities seems ripe with opportunities for disaster. I can just imagine the tempers that would flare as we try to relax in nature. Somebody would need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and be too afraid of the dark to leave the tent, using the corner of the sleeping bag instead. Somebody would drop every bit of her dinner into the dirt and devolve into tears at the loss. Somebody would be driven insane at the constant flux of bugs Ñ somebody named mom.

All of these speed bumps, though, don’t remove the core of my hopes: that we will get to experience the outdoors as more than just a place to play on a pretty day; that my kids might see the wilderness as more than something that exists beyond us; that their imaginations, respect and memories of being outside would grow.

So, how can we experience camping without worrying about irritated, bored or disillusioned campers? Without being so overcome with doubts that we fail to try camping altogether?

The solution is sitting right behind us.

Our backyards are the perfect way to dip our shivering toes into camping’s unknown waters without jumping right into the deep end. Instead of packing for a long drive to a faraway venue Ñ a prospect that seems as daunting as the camping itself Ñ it’s just as exciting for little ones to set up a tent in the backyard. The novelty of outdoor sleeping is enough to satisfy the kids, while keeping the experience harmless if things start to go wrong.

Get ready by finding flashlights and sleeping bags for each child, and a tent. Since you’ll only be steps away from the house, a cheap tent will do perfectly. Fill a cooler with food that the kids can grab themselves: prepared sandwiches, bags of chips, cut fruit and plenty of special snacks. If you have a campfire, discuss rules for its care and supervision. If you live near the woods, allow plenty of time for exploring, without schedules or expectations. Part of the fun of camping is its freedom. Let your kids experience that freedom as much as safety dictates.

For a further step away, try a grandparent’s or cousin’s backyard Ñ still simple enough to be comfortable but innovative enough to be exciting. When everyone has time to get used to the idea of sleeping outside with critters and nighttime sounds, and all the parents have gotten over their worries, a faraway camping trip will seem more possible.

I have a feeling that backyard camping will be a breeze for the little ones, but my own reservations will take longer to overcome. I’ll blame it on my years of enjoyment of things like air conditioning and mattresses Ñ things that can’t compete with nature in the long run, but put up a shockingly good fight in my pampered mind.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.

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