This started out as a comment, in reply to a question from Saint Aardvark on what it’s like camping and stargazing with a 5-year-old along. It grew in the telling, so I’m making it a stand-alone post. If you have ideas, tips, or tricks for making time outdoors with children easier, please share them in the comments!
I started taking London with me to dark-sky sites last summer, when he was about five and a half. Between July and November we went to Owl Canyon, Joshua Tree Lake, Afton Canyon, and the All-Arizona Star Party, so we basically built out from nearby destinations to farther ones. The hardest part for him initially was the long drive. We always pack him a backpack full of books and magazines. I also have a couple of kid-friendly CDs in the car, and I keep a full-size pillow within his reach so he can lay his head down and take a nap while we’re driving.
Once we get to wherever we’re going, London is usually off exploring and looking for bones or cool rocks near our campsite. He is very good at staying withing line of sight and not wandering more than 100 feet or so from me. My first goals are always to get our camping area squared away first, whether we’re staying in a tent or just sleeping in the back of the vehicle, and then to get a fire going for dinner. It helps to arrive an hour or two before sunset; much earlier and we just end up getting sunburned and waiting for dark, and much later and it’s harder to set up in the fading light.
I can’t overstate how useful–nay, critical–it is that I can trust London to mind himself for 30-60 minutes while I get everything squared away. It really drives me nuts when people say how lucky we are that London is well-behaved. It’s true that he has a naturally gentle disposition, but dismissing his good behavior as luck devalues all of the work that we put into disciplining him, and more importantly, all the work that he puts into disciplining himself. It’s precisely because of the effort we all put into maintaining a civil household that we can enjoy ourselves so much when we’re out of the house; good behavior out in the wild is earned by practice at home. I don’t bring this up to be snooty or a tiger parent. I just can’t stand wimps who are too lazy or passive to discipline their kids. That’s a dereliction of parental responsibility and a huge disservice to the children, who will have to learn discipline later on, the hard way, at someone else’s expense. End of rant.
After dinner I make a comfy spot for London to watch for shooting stars and satellites. This might be the lounge chair, if I have it along, or maybe just a sleeping bag and pillow laid on top of a big piece of cardboard on the ground. Or my lap, in whatever seating is available. Usually he tells me when he is getting sleepy and I get him settled in his bed. If we’re sleeping in the back of the car, I make sure a window or door is open so I can hear him if he calls out. He never has yet, but I think the knowledge that he could call for me if he needed is a comfort. And I just don’t want the car sealed up with him inside, even in good weather. I always set up the telescope as close to the car or tent as I can, so I can keep an eye on him and he can know that I’m nearby.
I want London to enjoy these outings as much as I do. I grew up out in the country and the ready access to wide open, semi-wild spaces had a huge impact on me. It’s not really feasible for us to live in the country, so my substitute is to get London out into nature as often as possible, and to try to facilitate his enjoyment of it. Even on the hardcore stargazing trips, I try to make sure that his interests and desires get at least equal billing with my own. I don’t think that’s indulgent–I’d do the same for a camping companion of any age. In the early evening, he mainly wants to run off the cabin fever from the car ride, do a little solo exploring near camp, and look for interesting things on the ground. (I’ve taught him to recognize venomous spiders, scorpions, and snakes. He’s never found any out camping, but when he was four he correctly IDed a black widow spider that set up shop under one of our plant stands in the living room!) I usually grill hot dogs for dinner and then follow up with s’mores. That makes the fixing of dinner something he can help out with, which keeps him engaged and gives him a sense of accomplishment. After dinner, we look for shooting stars and satellites until he conks out. Then I get in a few hours of solo stargazing.
In the morning, we have breakfast and go for a hike. I’m usually running on 3-5 hours of sleep, so having some caffeine available is a must. For the hike, London gets to choose the route and duration (within reason); he’s on these trips to hike as much as I am to stargaze, and we’re both comfortable with the give-and-take involved. If your little one isn’t into hiking, you might see if there is another outdoor activity that they are interested in, that could be their recreational time the way that stargazing is yours. In talking about our hikes, London and I always call them “adventures” that we “brave explorers” go on, and I think putting things in those terms helped inspire him the first few times out. Now he’s so hooked on hiking I could call them “death crawls” and he’d still be eager to get out there.
One last enticement: on the way home, we stop at a restaurant for lunch, and London gets to choose where we stop. This almost always means McDonald’s, but I can live with it. We bring dinner and breakfast fixings with us, so lunch on the ride home is our only extraneous expense. And it gives London a little something to look forward to at the end of the trip, when everything is over but the ride home.
Ultimately, camping with London is so smooth and enjoyable that it’s often the first choice for both of us for passing a weekend with good weather. It’s cheap, too: hot dogs, s’mores fixings, lunch at a fast food joint and 2/3 of a tank of gas usually add up to less money than we’d have spent over the weekend anyway. And it gets us out of the house and at least into some contact with nature. I hope he grows to love wild places as much as I do; I think the best way to cultivate that love is to help him enjoy his time in nature right now. I hope your own family outings are successful, and even when they’re not, I hope that doesn’t stop you from going. It’s worth it.