This is the second year I've done day camping with my toddler at a local state park camp site.
The biggest lesson I learnt from our first time camping was that nature is the best classroom and can keep little ones engaged sensorially in more ways than imagined. It's all about going back to the "basics" of nature exploration -- feeling the grass beneath the feet, sighting wild birds in clearings overhead, smelling wood burning from the pits, climbing rocks -- just to name a few.
There is little need for grown-ups to over-plan or schedule manmade activities for children to "entertain" them.
It was a nice departure from our daily routine to experience "the gift of boredom" and I took joy in seeing my toddler overcome the problem by independently seeking out new things to do. Learning to "manage boredom" is an important skill for children and can create breakthroughs in their imagination as well as independence.
This second camping trip, I focused more on using materials and resources on hand and on site to engage my toddler, in a Montessori-inspired style. My inspiration came from Every Star is Different.
10+ Montessori-inspired Camping Activities for Toddlers
These Montessori-inspired camping activities provided lessons on practical life -- self-care, care for the environment, as well as grace and courtesy.
1. Packing for the Camp
The last camping trip had been a year ago, and my toddler had been a crawling baby then. This year, I roped my toddler in for camp bag packing. It is a useful way for her to contribute, and get her thinking about the items she needs for the experience ahead.
My toddler chose some books, a water bottle and a stuffed toy for the trip. It was a good start!
Through camping themed books like Just Me and My Dad (Little Critter) and Good Night Campsite, my toddler had a better idea of what to expect for the camping trip. Reading camping themed books prior to the camp trip helps children be more prepared for what to expect, especially if the camp breaks their regular routine (and we know toddlers love their routines!)
2. Setting up the Tent
While the heavy work of setting up the tent is usually left to the grown-ups, children can contribute in their own little ways -- pushing the wagon of tent materials, choosing a tent spot, taking the tent canvas out of the bag, spreading it out, fetching tent parts, zipping and unzipping the tent.
They can also help to dust the area inside the tent to keep it clean and comfortable for everyone's use.
3. Cooking at the Camp
Be it cooking over the fire, or using a portable gas stove, outdoor cooking is dramatically different from indoor home cooking. There is much to observe, learn and help out with.
My toddler became my husband's sous chef, helping to fetch ingredients from the cooler bag, pass out plates for food to be served and bring out utensils from the bag.
4. Marshmallow Toasting
Camping doesn't feel right without marshmallow toasting. It is such a classic activity and really fun + delicious for toddlers. I usually refrain from giving sugary treats to my toddler, but camping makes for an exception.
My little one definitely preferred toasted to untoasted marshmallows.
It was interesting for her to taste the difference and provided a science lesson about what fire and food chemistry. More about the science behind a toasted marshmallow (sugar caramelisation) here.
Note: Render children lots of help and supervision for this activity, especially when toasting marshmallows over open fires.
Cottage Life has healthier child-friendly alternatives for food items to cook over the campfire, such as fondue and bannock (an easy bread).
5. Food Art
This is a more contrived form of sensory experience. Challenge children to decorate food imaginatively before eating it! Make bugs, animals, objects, anything from food! Ideas for food art ingredients:
- Fruits like grapes, strawberries, lemons
- Vegetables like carrot sticks and lettuce
- Nuts, seeds and grains
- Snacks like raisins
- Candies like M&Ms and Skittles
We made two designs of butterflies!
Remember to pack your child's usual utensils and cutlery for the camping trip to facilitate preparation of her own snacks.
6. Make Lemonade
Apart from bottled water, plan for making a refreshing beverage for a hot day at the campsite.
Children would love to help with the juicing and savor the thirst-quenching reward.
7. Drive By and Greet Neighbors
With COVID-19, it is essential to keep a minimum distance of 6ft from others. Yet, a big part about outdoor camping is meeting like-minded campers!
Solution? Do a drive-by in your vehicle, and befriend your neighbors!
With older children, challenge their memory by getting them to recall every neighbor's names.
This activity provides children with a lesson on extending grace, courtesy and manners to other people.
8. Outdoor Art (Chalk Drawing + Water Painting)
Roadside gravel and rocks at the camp site make great chalk canvases. Children often enjoy the novel tactile input from leaving chalk marks on hard, bumpy, uneven and rough gravel and rocks.
After chalk drawing, follow-up with a water painting activity to clean off the chalk traces. This is part of learning to care for and respect nature. Pack some paint brushes and provide your toddler with a container of water to 'paint'.
Note: Watch out for children who wander too far onto the main road to find new things to draw on or paint, where there might be some passing traffic.
9. Nature Sensory Board
Children like to explore and collect souvenirs from nature.
Construct a nature sensory board on site, with some tape and an empty wooden crate (or cardboard).
This nature sensory board would make a great decoration back at home to remember the camping experience by and for further exploration of the nature loose parts.
10. Pretend stage
Take turns staging impromptu performances -- be it singing, acting out a skit or role-playing.
My toddler climbed onto a rock and sang her ABCs on her pretend stage.
If a group activity is required, bubbles and music would be a good combination to get children to socialise as they chase and pop bubbles while moving to the beat.
12. Torchlight & Glow Sticks
Don't forget to pack a torchlight! Some light enable fun after-dark activities like under-the-covers storytelling. Glow sticks can spice up the night even more and be used for hide and seek.
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.