Benefits of camping with children and avoiding screen time

(Image by Nicholas A. Tonelli via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Reluctant visitor on a lake

Anxiety of a digital age nags –
learn a new fact, do something,
be productive, keep up! –
but out here the way
is to throw away,
let go,
and smile only at the shore
that beckons with its sudden glimmer of lights.

(J. Andrew McKee, July 2014)

* * *

Gliding on Bucks Lake

Droplets fall from the paddle,
expanding triangles as we glide by,
only the tapping of the small alpine waves
and breeze ruffling against our ears.
In this tandem kayak,
a four-year old girl says,
“Daddy, this is relaxing.”

(J. Andrew McKee, July 2014)

* * *

Muddy tent

Splatter on the tent:
fog condensing into mud droplets
pregnant in the morning
with dirt deposits on the bottom,
dried by afternoon to tar clouds,
light brown shadows by dinner.

(J. Andrew McKee, July 2014) 

* * *

Camping is our main family past time.  But why on earth would we camp, especially with little kids, and one still in diapers?

When we camp, the focus is on the family.  We share every meal together.  We share almost all activities – hiking, playing in the water, boating, drawing, painting, reading, singing songs.  We parents prioritize time for reflection and relaxation when we can.  With a single agenda-free day, there is plenty of time to enjoy a book or write in a journal while the kids play nearby.  There’s more time for the mundane – washing dishes by hand and cooking food with less pots and utensils than we have at home – which is clarifying in a very real, Zen-like way .

We lose the twitch of modern time – that sense of nervously checking a watch or phone every few minutes – instead paying more attention to the sun and our own rhythms for cues of meal times and bedtime.  And we are sucked into the outdoor marvels.  During our recent trip into the Sierras, we saw jagged hills covered in towering pines that, when we were at their feet and looking to the sky, would dance and sway in afternoon winds that would whoosh up and down the canyon and announce the topology of the land in rolling choruses.

We left the computers and iPad at home.  Brought the phones for emergencies, but left them in the car and in airplane mode.  In general, we don’t let the kids play with smart phones or tablets, or watch TV.  You only have to look at a few little kids at a restaurant, for instance, hovering over their glowing rectangular devices and twitching like drug addicts nervous for the next fix, estranged from their nearby family as they sit there lost in some video world while the parents, themselves stressed out understandably, try to breathe for a moment or two before the messy chaos of dinner begins.

What did we bring, other than food and shelter gear?  We brought art supplies for the girls so that they could paint or collect pine cones and other small objects, glue them to paper, and paint and color and draw to their heart’s content, and sand toys so they could play on the sand at the edge of a river near the campground.  I brought my guitar and this songbook.

Are our kids missing out on some essential technological learning or acquisition of facts?  Not that we can tell.  In fact, I think the opposite is the case.  They are practicing skills and behaviors that will serve them throughout their lives:  playing, relaxing, using their imagination and observational skills, and connecting in a lasting and meaningful way with themselves and their family members.

Readers, please share your thoughts on camping, especially with kids.  What do you think the benefits are?  If you don’t take your kids camping, why not?

And please let me know your interest in these possible follow-up articles:

  1. How to raise young kids without resorting to the iPad baby sitter
  2. What does the evidence suggest about children and “nature-deficit disorder”?
  3. What does evidence suggest about the most “bang for your buck” ways to expose kids to more Nature?

I’ll conclude with a quotation of Ralph Waldo Emerson that resonates with why we camp (from “Nature”)

At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish.  The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he takes into these precincts.  Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes.

You can read more about the benefits of Nature and the decline of the outdoors as a childhood past time here:

  1. What we know and don’t know about “Children’s Nature Deficit” (Children & Nature Network)
  2. Benefits for children of being outdoors in Nature (Children & Nature Network)
  3. “Healthy Places: Exploring the Evidence” (a helpful review by Dr. Howard Frumkin of the CDC)

2 thoughts on “Benefits of camping with children and avoiding screen time

Add yours

  1. Andrew, I love your views on camping, changing your career path to a life path and raising kids without a cell phone.

    I do not have children but I can’t see the value in going camping with a child, experiencing that creative flow of being in nature with a child. I wish I had been raised that way.

    my husband takes work very seriously while I have felt the need to completely turn my work from high-tech, always on to as much time away from the screen as possible. I may have to take a drive up the coast on my own for that nurture from nature and trees.


  2. Thank you Ellen for sharing! Yes I don’t know if it’s typical or just me, but I definitely feel my mind getting “fried” if I stare at a screen for too long without breaks. Even if not it’s not by walking or camping in Nature, just finding solitude can open up fascinating new vistas in our lives.


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