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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Camping with Kids can be a Fairy Tale

Most grown ups I know are scared of sleeping in the woods - bears, serial killers, pooping sans porcelain - so how do you go about making young children feel at home away from home and foster a love of the outdoors? There are likely tons of successful strategies that have been employed over time by parents, like me, who hope that their kids will someday also be hiking partners, but here's what I used which worked wonders: Fairies!

I started by explaining to Fiona (6) and Isley (4) that wood fairies live deep in the woods in the most beautiful places in the world. You see, these little delicate fairies need clean air and water and are afraid of the loud noises and crowds of cities and towns where people live (excepting of course tooth fairies who are very brave). That, I explained, is why you need to head for the mountains, where the woods are deepest and quietest to find fairy habitat.

One of the biggest problems encountered by parents of young children on camping trips is that they get bored - QUICKLY. Food can be used to distract to a point, but most kids don't know how to entertain themselves around a campsite without some guidance. So I introduced a little story from my childhood which provides, excitement and wonder, fodder for exploration and creativity, and hours of busy activity. I explained to my girls that some children (including their dad, a long time ago) have learned that fairies are always looking for a new and wonderful place to sleep each night. When they find a house that really pleases them they've been known to leave a gift for whoever built it when they leave in the morning. The kids immediately set out to find the best rocks, the strongest sticks, the prettiest leaves, and the widest bark with which to build a fairy house that would be pleasing enough to a family of wood fairies that they might find a gift in the morning.

Beyond entertainment and creative play, this little story also provides an opportunity to discuss the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT). In their mindset of seeking to please the fairies, kids re very receptive to hearing about how we only use fallen branches, that we should never litter the fairies beautiful forest with trash, and that fairies won't come if we make a mess of the ground around their woodland home. My kids wanted to use pieces of plastic and rubber bands that they'd found in the fairy house, but I explained that those things belonged in our trash bag and not in the woods and the fairies would be even more proud of us if we left the woods cleaner than when we came.

Now, your kids will want to see the fairies, but of course you can explain that fairies are so small and so fast that they can't be seen during the day. However, on summer nights, fairies like to play by pretending to be fireflies -although you can tell which ones are actually fairies in disguise if you look closely because they move a little faster than the real fireflies. Despite all this, my kids are quite certain they saw at least one fairy who they named "the blueberry fairy"because she was a blue tint and was around the bushes I'd previously identified for them as blueberries.

The fairy story also helps to alleviate anxiety about going to sleep in a strange place. Just like Santa, the fairies won't come visit to check on the house you built unless you're asleep. Being preoccupied with a forest full of fairies prevents the worries about lions and tigers and bears from creeping into little minds.

Grownups need to have some foresight to bring along a little prize to stash in the fairyhouse during a mid-night pee break (i used ring pops, but anything out of those quarter vending machines or a dollar store will work).

My girls can't wait to go camping again (at a place with fairies of course) and are already planning architectural improvements to their fairy houses.

For backpacking trips with hiking involved, my plan is to get bags of gold-foil chocolate coins and toss them ahead on the trail suggesting that friendly wood gnomes hide their treasure along the trail. I'll let you know how it goes.

Happy Hiking!

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