You remember the tent. And the bug spray. And enough snacks to feed a small army. But what about the entertainment? You know, the things that are going to keep your kids busy from sun up to sun down. Planning camping activities for kids often goes overlooked because you’re probably focusing on the most important things – like food and shelter. And to be honest, keep kids busy while camping isn’t much different than keeping them busy at home. Except you’re out in nature, which opens the door to new interests. After our first rodeo tent camping with two young kids, these are our best camping activity ideas that you can use on your next trip.
1. Rock Painting
If your kids have never painted rocks, camping is the perfect opportunity to introduce them. It’s one of our most favorite camping activities for kids and here’s why:
- Rock painting can keep kids busy for an impressive amount of time. At least in our case, unless we’re talkin’ screen time, attention spans are ~5 minutes on average. So when you find an activity that they really get into for an extended amount of time, you treasure it.
- There are some fun teaching moments. Part of the fun, of course, is the rock painting itself. But what we like to do is take the decorated rocks and hide them all over the campground for people to find. You can write things like “Be Kind”, “Smile”, “Adventure”, and “Be Brave”. And it empowers kids to do something nice for others. We hide them in the park at home when not camping.
If you want to make this activity last, we’d recommend grabbing some acrylic paint markers and a big bag of rocks from Amazon. These are what we use and it’s lasted us through multiple uses. Definitely recommend the paint pens over paint/paintbrush. To add more adventure, you could also go rock hunting at the campground and find rocks that way.
2. Viewing nature up close
An essential part of any family camping trip is exploring for bugs, rocks, birds, flowers. Really anything and everything. If you’re out in wild, you may as well go all in. We had a bug house at home so we brought it with us. And of course a quality pair of binoculars (which also makes a fantastic birthday gift idea). Apart from those two things – we went to the local Dollar Tree and rounded up a bunch of inexpensive little surprises that we brought out each day – a compass, net, tweezers, magnifying glass. Having daily surprises at the ready is a great way to redirect any potential tantrum that may headed your way.
Makeshift outdoor exploration kits are one of our favorite camping activities for kids because they provide entertainment value for all ages. In fact, our 4-year old gave our 1-year old a little science lesson. She showed him how to use all the equipment and then he put those skills to good use collecting rocks and sticks.
3. Set up a kids only area
This is one we hadn’t planned for in advance, but kind of fell into. And we would highly recommend it. What we did was keep an extra air mattress outside in a nice shady area. During the day, our 4-year old would bounce around on it while we were cooking meals. She also did her coloring and rock painting on it. Sometimes she ate her meals on it. Camping means a lot of togetherness so it was nice she could go over on her own to get some space. It doesn’t have to be anything super extravagant either. A beach blanket would also work just fine.
The other benefit is that it can be a nice place to relax (especially on hot days when the tent is a little too hot). Because she doesn’t take naps, we still wanted her to get some quiet time in. So she’d head over to her little area and just chill for awhile. Sometimes, with the iPad. While limited, we still brought it. Guilty.
4. Water activities are not limited to lakes and beaches
If you’re going camping during the warmer months, do not make the same mistake we did by not having a plan to cool off. We had to create our own water play on the fly. Actually, it made a for a pretty good idea. We used one of the big bins that stored our sheets and filled it with ice. The kids played in the ice with their toys and eventually it melted, creating a DIY pool if you will. Though if you can swing it, those $6 hard plastic pools from Walmart are perfect for camping. We were going to bring ours and sadly ran out of room. Next time, we’ll kick something else out of the car to make room for this.
5. Plan camping activities at nighttime for your kids, too
Any camping activities you plan for your kids don’t have to be limited to just daytime. Play up the nighttime experience too. Most kids don’t get to be out and about during nighttime, so make it a special experience for them. Bring things like glow sticks, headlamps, and flashlights to hype up the fact that they are out past their bedtime. We made the headlamp a little surprise for our first night and it was a big hit! You can also bring something you have from home (portable is better!).
Check out some glow in the dark game ideas to kick your nighttime activities up a notch. Most use glow sticks, which makes them easy to prepare!
6. Sand and sport toys for some active play
We’re all for planning camping activities that get the whole family involved. And a good way to do that are with sport toys – frisbees, balls, those little velcro catch games (or the updated version we got Olivia for Easter this year). One of the most popular of games we brought along for our camp trip was a neoprene frisbee. We got ours at Target in the swim section and they are great for younger kids that may not be totally into the hard plastic frisbees.
Moving on to sand activities, we brought a few of our favorites from home. Sand toys are great because if there is a beach nearby, it can obviously be useful there. But they are also great for digging around at the campsite in dirt. Our 1-year old goes crazy over his wagon full of beach toys because it’s like a 2-for-1 toy. And our 4-year old loves the whole baking with mud concept (see why mud kitchens are the best thing ever). Most of what we brought doubled as birthday presents for the kids, but you can also just grab whatever cups, plasticware, and shovels you have laying around at home.
7. Let them participate in the cooking process
For kids that love to bake with you at home, this is a fun one. And this doesn’t have to be assembling a lunchmeat sandwich, but research some fun camp recipes for kids. Popsugar has a good resource or check Pinterest. Mmm campfire cones and chili cheese fries. Whoever said campfire cooking can’t be mouth-watering?
To get you started with some of our favorite ways to involve the kids, we brought some naan bread and pizza toppings so they could assemble their own pizzas. We made the ever classic banana boats together. And a camping must-have – the sandwich cooker. Two pieces of bread and let your kiddo fill it with apple pie topping. Top notch dessert right there. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of food, mix up your s’more making. Put a roasted marshmallow between two fudge striped cookies for a special treat. As if s’mores weren’t special enough to begin with.
8. Let them fill a backpack with their own activities
We’ll turn this one around and instead of planning camping activities for kids, let the kids plan their own activities. Something we institute on most of our trips is the “only bring what fits in your backpack rule”. Clearly we’ve just listed out a bunch of stuff that in no way will fit in one backpack. But this rule is more for the toys your kids want to bring above and beyond what you’ve planned.
Olivia got a new backpack for her birthday so we let her fill it with whatever toys she wanted to bring. It mostly consisted of a couple stuffed animals, some books, a baby toy she so generously packed for baby brother, a game of go fish, and a couple other random items she squeezed in at the last second because she had room remaining (and you can’t leave empty space). But this ensures that whatever they deem important to their own campsite entertainment, gets packed.
9. Jewelry making
You can find beads and string in any local craft store, which makes this an inexpensive activity that will keep your kids busy for awhile. The pony beads are great for younger kids with small little fingers. And it’s also the perfect rainy day activity if you’re stuck in your tent for awhile.
10. Give them chores to do to keep them busy
This may not fly with older kids, but younger kids love to help out. We gave our 4-year campsite jobs to do to help out. Things like carrying over firewood, making the tent beds, and helping to wash dishes. She was jazzed to have an important role and it kept her busy while we were working on other campsite tasks. This is always an easy go-to when you hear the dreaded “I’m bored”.
11. A nature scavenger hunt or a hiking version of “I Spy”
Pack your kids stroller or bike and get moving. We loved having the stroller with us because it gave the kids some much needed downtime. The 1-year old would take a little snooze half the time when we went for a campground stroll. And we’d play games with the 4-year old while she got some rest in the stroller. These mostly consisted of nature scavenger hunts and I Spy. But they were so popular they became a daily thing for us.
12. Music is always a good option
If all else fails, host a dance party. I don’t know if anyone else’s kids are like ours, but our kids LOVE music. So bring a portable speaker and play some tunes. It’s a good way to keep your kids busy while you’re cooking or doing other camp chores. You can take it a step further by letting them pick the music. Or by making it a glow in the dark dance party complete with glow sticks.
Camping with young kids can be a great way to get your kids outdoors and excited about nature (though we prefer if the spiders stay outside the tent). The key is stay flexible and go with the flow. Have some of these activities ready, but if they aren’t into it, move on to another from the list. We let our kids lead for the most part and just had a lot of options available to them.
Have you been camping with kids? If so, what are your favorite camp activities? Comment below!
You can also see our full video experience over on our Family on Standby Youtube Channel
For more camping with kids tips check out this article we wrote on our family travel site: tent camping with toddlers for the first time.