Babes in the Woods

For Joshua Feldman, 8, at Burke Lake Park,
For Joshua Feldman, 8, at Burke Lake Park, "C" is for caterpillar. An alphabet hike is one way to entertain kids on the trail. (Ann Cameron Siegal)
By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 5, 2007

"Camping is one of those times when it's okay to get dirty and wet, to laugh and not care," says Richard Carter, who volunteers with the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville.

Getting out in nature, hiking, exploring in an electronics-free environment, telling stories around a campfire, then falling asleep to the sound of frogs and crickets help build lasting family memories. What better time to start than in October? Cool days and nights, no mosquitoes, uncrowded campgrounds and glorious fall colors all await you.

Sam Jenkins, 5, began camping when he was 2 and has spent nights in Yellowstone National Park, along the Appalachian Trail and on Assateague Island. His dad, Jim Jenkins, a fifth-grade teacher in Purcellville, says: "Be ready to live in the moment. Don't have a firm schedule. Stop and see things kids are interested in."

What is most memorable to your children may be quite different from your expectations.

Maggie Chamberlain, 9, of Alexandria says of her family's year-round outings: "When we go camping, we get to see animal prints in the snow, herons, beautiful waterfalls and lots of stars. We also get to burp out loud and play with our pudding."

What's not to love about that?

The First Step: A Backyard Camp-Out

Although some children are gung-ho for anything, others will need a bit of help getting comfortable enough to spend the night outside, away from the comforts of home. Darkness adds a new dimension to even the most familiar setting. Sounds are magnified, and the same crawly things that are ignored during the day may loom large in a child's imagination at night.

One of the best ways for children (and fearful adults) to gradually work their way into the nighttime world of the outdoors is through a backyard camp-out. To enhance the feeling of being away from home, set the tents up facing away from the house. Take a night hike around the block. Turn off house lights and flashlights, let eyes adjust to the darkness and then talk about what you can see.

Sing songs and tell stories, nothing too scary for the first outing.

Finally, when you nestle into your sleeping bags, see whether you can identify the sounds of the night.

Setting Out: Always Be Prepared

Children of all ages can help plan and set up a camping trip. The more they do to get ready, the better the chance they'll enjoy the outing, but match their assigned tasks to their age levels.

For first outings, stick to within an hour or two of home. Try to go for two nights because it's nice to have one full day when you're not setting up or taking down the campsite.

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