9 Ways to keep toddlers busy in the Great Outdoors
My daughter, Ellie is 2 years old. Initially, my wife and I considered taking a family vacation to Sesame Place, a Sesame Street-inspired theme park in Pennsylvania for Elmo’s World junkies. But ultimately, we decided that it wouldn't be worth all the money spent on airfare, hotel, car rental, and theme park tickets for something that she wouldn’t even remember. Instead, we decided to embark on our first camping vacation with hopes of years of camping to come.
We spent the first night of our camping trip in a hotel room, splitting up the 10-hour drive from our home in Portland, Oregon to Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California. It was hell. Our adorable 2-year-old daughter figured out how to escape the room, opening the door and bolting down the hall at every opportunity. She would run in the bathroom and slam door, leaving me on the other side fearing that she’d accidentally lock herself in and end up drowning in the toilet. And the jumping! My apologies to those guests on the floor below us.
The reality that became crystal clear? Keeping Ellie occupied during our camping trip (note how it’s now morphed from vacation to trip) was going to be a full-time job. In the end, that “work” is what made the time special. The secret? Keeping it simple.
1/Find a stick
All that this game requires is two sticks and your campfire bucket filled with water. You play “Stick In the Water” by sitting in camping chairs side-by-side in front of the bucket and splashing the sticks in the water. Yes, I'm serious. It’s a good time to teach lessons in stick safety, such as “be careful swinging that stick” and “don't point sticks in people's faces” and “didn't I just say be careful swinging that stick?” For added fun, you can sing the words “stick in the water” to the tune of Smoke on the Water, while you splash. Your kid won't understand what you're doing, but that doesn't matter.
2/Touch that tree
You play this game by screaming, “let's go touch that tree,” while pointing at the intended target and then run. You wait for your kiddo to catch up and then you point and scream “let's go touch that tree!” and so on. The goal, of course, is to tire your kid out as much as possible. Admittedly, it didn’t work on Ellie, but maybe you'll have better luck.
3/Play in the dirt
This activity involves your toddler plopping down on the ground and using her hands and feet to cover herself in as much dirt as possible. Your kid will have to discover this one on her own, because throwing a handful of dirt at your child to get the ball rolling could be interpreted as a jerk move.
4/Throw rocks in water
What is it about rocks, water, and kids? Find a puddle, stream or lake, and the rest will take care of itself. Take the opportunity to impress your child with your own stone skipping skills.
5/"Go see bear driving"
Our campground was right next to the visitors center at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, filled with several cool Redwoods displays including an old-time, wooden RV with a stuffed bear propped up behind the steering wheel. Ellie developed a low-level obsession with this bear. She asked to “go see bear driving” at least once a day, which conveniently involved a long walk. And it was on one of these trips to the visitors center to “see bear driving” when Ellie met her new low-level obsession, 2-year-old Wyatt, whose mom was making the same trek to the visitors center for the same purpose.
6/Find a friend
At your campground, there’ll likely be other parents who also are working very hard to keep their toddler entertained and could use a break. Find them. If your kids take to each other, you can sit back and observe. You may even swap birth stories (or sit there and listen to your wife swap birth stories). Be prepared, however to re-teach the “don't point sticks in people's faces” lesson.
7/Run down a hill
With hopes that physical exertion will lead to a long naptime, find a hill, run down it, and repeat. Or better idea, you can wait at the bottom of the hill while your kid runs down to you. Lift her high above your head and enthusiastically yell, “Wooo,” and then send her back up.
8/Go see something cool
This one is more of a distraction technique than anything else. Employ when your kid is getting bored, getting into stuff, getting under foot or getting fussy. I would just say, “hey Ellie, wanna go see something cool?” She’d curiously reply, “okay,” and we'd just start walking. Mind you, I didn't have any idea where we were going, but that never really mattered.
9/Last resort: pull out the tablet
I know, I know. This move pretty much goes against the whole point of camping! But when you just need a break or both parents need to pitch in on making a meal, an episode of Elmo’s World may be the only thing that keeps your active camper planted in one spot. Cut yourself some slack!
To read the 6 keys to a successful camping trip with a toddler, click here.
Writer Nate Baker lives in Oregon City, Oregon, with his wife and 2-year-old daughter. After having a kid, Nate and his wife figured that they should stop watching so much TV and start planning some childhood memories for their daughter!
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