With all the uncertainty as we try to put Covid behind us, many families have been hesitant to make travel plans this summer. But your family needs some breaks away from home. Wouldn't it be amazing if that break also helps you hit the reset button on screens with a "dopamine fast," gets everybody in the family moving, facilitates some nice family bonding, and gives your kids a chance to climb trees, chase fireflies, and roast marshmallows?

Whether you go for a week or a weekend, camping has all the ingredients for a fun, safe, affordable and meaningful family vacation. It's also a great learning experience for children of all ages. In one large study, parents said that camping benefitted their children by giving them more freedom, independence, confidence, and responsibility within a safe setting, as well as the opportunity to appreciate nature, escape from technology, and bond with family.

Yes, it takes some planning. But that's part of the fun, and a great learning experience for your child! 

1. Find a campground close to home.

Use a National Park Service website or Reserve America. Hopefully you'll be able to drive there in a few hours. Prioritize campgrounds close to water for swimming, tubing, boating or other activities your kids will like. (No car? New York and many other cities have campgrounds that are available via public transportation, or consider renting a car just for the trip.)

2. Make planning part of the fun.

Remember, anticipation builds excitement and kids learn a lot by taking responsibility for making a project happen. Brainstorm with your family about how to make this super fun for everyone. Empower your kids to do some of the planning about where are you'll go and what food you'll eat. Come up with a list of camping games, like camping bingo, scavenger hunts, and flashlight tag. Stress that everyone's contribution will be needed, and everyone will work together.

3. Work with each child on a list of things for them to bring.

Let them take the lead on their packing, checking off the items on the list. Kids can also take responsibility for part of the "family list." Don't forget matches and newspapers to start a fire, ingredients for s'mores, water bottles, drums and other musical instruments, messy art supplies, board games, cards, flashlights, extra towels, wipes, sleeping pads, magnifying glass, baggies for cool leaves, and rocks, snacks to keep kids happy while they're hiking, and of course bug spray and sunscreen.

4. If you don't have camping equipment, borrow it, rent it, or buy it used.

Practice setting your tent up before you go. Consider a test-run camping weekend in your backyard, to help your child become more comfortable sleeping outside.

5. Plan on a campfire so you don't need a lot of cooking gear.

Be sure to pack food that your kids like, but keep it simple. Everything tastes better around a campfire. As long as you have tin foil and tongs, you can make everything from french toast to vegies to popcorn.

6. Think low-tech.

What your kids will remember is lying on a blanket looking at the stars with you, singing around the campfire, or floating down the river with you in an inner tube. Keep devices off except in emergencies.

7. Include simple surprises.

To ease screen withdrawal, plan some simple surprises. For instance:

  • If you're hiking, plan for something fun at the end of every trail so kids can look forward to it. Maybe there's a waterfall or you bring some chocolate for a snack.
  • See if there's a geocache location near your campsite and bring a small toy or knickknack to leave. Your kids will love using the coordinates to track the geocache and discovering the "treasure."
  • Download a fun children's audio book for the car.
  • Bring some surprises your children don't expect, like glow sticks, bubbles, kiddie headlamps, or a festive string of battery lights to decorate your tent.

8. Prioritize being present and flexible!

Focus on fun of the journey with your child, not the destination. Don't worry if you never make it to the end of the hiking trail. What matters most is the fun everybody has along the way. That means that YOUR good mood is the key to a rewarding trip for everyone. Enjoy your child, and find things to appreciate. You'll almost certainly discover that unplugging for some quality family time in nature is as good for you as it is for your child.