Getting kids outside has a whole host of benefits, from stronger immune systems to the sheer joy of play. While sometimes all that’s needed is a stick and a bit of imagination, having certain gear can help bringing kids outside easier, safer and more fun. Whether you’re in the mountains or your own backyard, this gift guide – which is mainly focused on kids in preschool and elementary school – should provide a few helpful suggestions. (Note – none of these are affiliate or sponsored links, just products and/or companies I personally like.)
Cape Cod is full of activities for children, from sand-castle building to mini-golf. But Cape Cod is also home to unique ecological habitats and natural landscapes that are wonderful to explore with kids. Our family visited the Cape last week and these were some of our favorite activities:
To stave off an ever-increasing case of cabin fever, we headed out to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park on Monday. I had wanted to go for National Parks Week last week, but the weather conspired against us. But as Monday was sunny and in the high 60s, we were going, come hell or high water.
Or more specific t0 our situation, come a hungry newborn and cranky toddler. We were mostly ready to go – adults showered and dressed, the kid dressed and the newborn fed. But then Sprout wanted to do tummy time with Little Bird (he loves encouraging him). But then Little Bird needed to eat – again. But then Sprout had a meltdown because Chris was packing cantaloupe instead of watermelon and a turkey sandwich instead of peanut butter and jelly, even though he had asked for turkey earlier. But then, but then, but then. We finally left an hour later than I planned. The getting out the door routine with two kids is going to take some getting used to.
I think I’m turning into the dad from Calvin and Hobbes. Except instead of our adventures “building character” for my kid, they are doing it for me! In our second camping trip, some things went very right compared to last time, but others went very, very wrong.
I tried hard to learn from last time, bringing both lower expectations and a few extra pieces of gear. Unfortunately, I repeated the very first mistake – look up where the campground itself is, not just the national park! As it turned out, the campground was literally two states over from our destination, Harper’s Ferry. As Harper’s Ferry sits on the intersection between West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, thankfully it worked out to only a 20 minute detour.
My other efforts were more productive. We arrived there earlier, packed the car more efficiently, and set up faster than last time. We even had time the first day to head into town, eat ice cream, and gaze out over the meeting of Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, dotted with colorful inflatable rafts and tubes.
Not everything was quite so cheery though. Only two weeks ago, a fire ripped through several of the town’s historical wood and stone buildings. (Check out their GoFundMe page if you want to help.) A whole chunk of the block was black, charred and disintegrating, right in the middle of their tourist season. Rather than ignore it, we explained to Sprout both what happened and how people were helping each other recover. In particular, we connected it with the theme of LeVar Burton’s book The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, which has the theme of how friends can help each other heal after traumatic situations. While I don’t think he really understood the magnitude of what happened, it was good practice for future conversations like this.
Other parts of the trip also reminded me of both the value as well as the challenges of neighbors. Camping creates an easy intimacy, with everyone sharing the twisted perspective that it’s a really awesome idea to sleep on the ground protected only by a little fabric.
This camaraderie was doubly-intense in this particular campground, which didn’t have assigned campsites, only a shared space under a grove of trees with a scattering of picnic tables and fire pits. Sprout was an immediate point of connection, with fellow campers commenting on his cuteness and encouraging him to pet their dogs. A kayaking instructor putting boats into the river even chimed into my conversation with Sprout, saying that he started bringing his son with him in the boat when he was only 6 months old. But despite his encouragement, we were content with watching dogs fetching balls, wading in up to our knees, examining clam and snail shells, and spotting tiny fish darting about.
But not all of our interactions were quite so pleasant. It started with our neighbors on one side blasting Southern rock deep into the night, with a call out about every 15 minutes to “Turn it up!” I didn’t bother getting Sprout to bed until quiet hours were supposed to start at 10 pm. All the white noise in the world wasn’t going to drown that out.
At 10 pm, I held out hope when it paused momentarily, then lost it again when it started back up a few minutes later. When those people finally went to bed at 11, our neighbors on the other side picked up the slack with an enthusiastic game of beer pong and multiple rounds of the Happy Birthday song.
Normally, I’d be mildly annoyed but understanding. However, I was sharing a tent with a two-year-old who wanted to join in the fun and knew there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop him. Not long after I put him down and left the tent, Chris commented, “Well, there’s not much he can do but sit in there and play with his toys. At least until he finds the zipper.” Literally seconds after the words left his mouth, we heard a zip and saw a little blond head sticking out. So much for that plan.
I headed in there to lie down with him, to no avail. Chris eventually got bored and joined me, but all we got for our efforts was a toddler climbing on us like it was his own personal bounce house. Across the tent, over Chris’s legs, up his chest, plowing into my head, back to his own sleeping bag and around again. And again and again. It was a toddler rave, complete with uncoordinated movements and the drug of severe sleep deprivation. But I couldn’t blame Sprout for his shenanigans – after all, they were clearly having a good time outside! Unlike last time, when I nearly melted down myself, I just shrugged and laughed. (Even when Sprout imitated my tendency to call out to my husband in whiny frustration – he yelled “Chrisssss!” at the door. Of course, Chris thought it was hysterical.)
Once the party finally calmed down at 12:30, Sprout was still way too wound to calm down voluntarily, so Chris stuck him in the car and drove around until he finally passed out.
Camping should be celebratory – of nature and people – but I do hope it’s not quite that celebratory in the future.
The crackling of the fire, the joy of rambling around outside, the sweet goodness of S’mores, the spread of stars in the night sky – all idyllic childhood memories associated with camping. On the other hand, there’s sore backs from sleeping on the ground, damp clothing, and arguments about setting up the tent, considered “character-building experiences” by generations of parents. In Sprout’s first camping trip last weekend, we had a solid mix of both, but more than enough of the former for me to dream of future trips on the way home.
This was our second try at camping with Sprout. We planned on going last year, but ditched the idea when it was supposed to be raining and a high temperature in the 50s. To make up for it, I planned this trip to replace the last one, even going to the same location of Shenandoah National Park.
I don’t exactly know why I’m so keen on camping with Sprout, but there’s something in me drawn to it. I tent camped with my parents as a kid, but I was too young to remember it. Most of my memories are of being in our slightly-cramped pop-up trailer, lying on my back and listening to the rain sound like the water boiling for macaroni and cheese. When I was older, I went tent camping as part of more extensive hiking or rock-climbing trips, with mixed results. While the logical part of my mind says I want to go camping because it’s cheap, my sentimental, romantic side is far more vague, providing a longing for being outside with my family and away from my to-do list.
The trip did a beautiful job fulfilling that desire. Even if there had been cell reception up in the mountains – which there wasn’t – I don’t think I would have picked it up. We were too busy setting up, playing or just being together. I played ball with Sprout in our campsite and watched him vroom his recycling truck in the grass. He loved climbing in and out of the tent so much that he cried when we broke it down the next morning. Sitting at the picnic table, we ate corn and potatoes cooked over an open flame, Sprout hamming it up with the corn cob sticking out of his mouth. We snuggled under blankets, watching the flickering flames and glowing embers. After we put Sprout to bed, Chris and I ate S’mores, drank wine and sat in peace with each other, quiet but not silent. The next day, we hiked down to a waterfall with a wide, long view out to the rest of the forested valley. We ate sandwiches perched on rocks, the green expanse of Big Meadows spreading out behind us.
That’s not to say everything went perfectly. When we tried to play our first game of frisbee, I threw it and hit Sprout right below the eyes. (He was okay.) Sprout had to go to bed before we could introduce him to the wonders of toasted marshmallows. Fortunately, we now know a number of things for our next trip.
Camping can be expensive.
In theory, camping is cheap, compared to staying at a hotel. After all, it was only $20 a night for the site. But that doesn’t include the huge amount of gear required. Before this trip, we already had the vast majority of our gear – a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and a camp stove, totaling several hundred dollars worth of equipment. Despite that, we still ended up dropping almost $200 at Target before we left: a camp lantern, new cooler, non-BPA water bottles, Swiss Army knife, first aid supplies, and groceries for lunch/dinner. While we will use all of the stuff in the future, you really need to like camping to drop the resources on it. For an excellent set of gear check-lists, I recommend The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping With Kids, which has a lot of good advice on family camping in general.
Check the campsite location.
This issue was totally and utterly my fault. When I looked up Shenandoah National Park on Google Maps, I was pleasantly surprised to see it was only an hour and a half away. Except that I forgot Shenandoah is 150 miles long. More importantly, I forgot our campsite was located half-way down Skyline Drive, which has a speed limit of 35 mph. Knowing exactly where our site was would have saved us some time (we could have gone in a different entrance) and stress of having an annoyed toddler in the backseat for that long.
Setting up and breaking down will take more time than expected, especially if you want to use the fire to cook with.
Chris and I have done a remarkably low amount of camping together due to his previous work schedule. As a result, the large majority of my camping experience has been with a group where I was not the one primarily responsible for setting up and breaking down the campsite. While I have the skills to do it, I was never cognizant of the timing. As it turns out, it takes a really long time to set up (and break down) a campsite, especially when you have a small child to keep an eye on. In particular, getting the fire going and having big enough flames to cook with takes ages. I had planned on getting there, setting up the site, and driving back out for a short hike before dinner. Ha. Between getting in later than anticipated and stoking the fire, we ended up not eating dinner until 8 PM. Thank goodness our neighbors with a giant RV gave us half a bag of charcoal or we would have been there all night.
An easy bedtime makes no guarantees.
By the time we finished dinner, Sprout was exhausted and antsy, bordering on chaotic naughty. Seeing no good to come in the future if he stayed up, I brought him into the tent and started a camping version of the bedtime routine. But when I tried to put him in the pack-and-play, he refused to lie down. I wasn’t going to push the issue, so I just kissed him goodnight and left, hearing no complaints in my wake. Fast-forward an hour and a half, when we heard panicked yelling just past 11 PM. So much for that plan. I went in to find him still sitting up, how he must have fallen asleep. After I picked him up, it took a good 10 minutes to calm him down. There was no way in hell I was leaving that tent without waking up half of the campground.
Be prepared to change sleeping arrangements.
Instead of trying to get Sprout back down in the pack-and-play, I got into my pajamas and snuggled down with him. Unfortunately, it was dark and I didn’t have the patience or extra hands to go searching for his sleeping mat. As a result, I ended up half-way off my sleeping mat, freezing for half the night because I couldn’t zip up my sleeping bag. If I had his sleeping mat and bag next to me prepared for such a situation, I probably would have had a more pleasant night.
Don’t underestimate morning dew; bring plenty of extra clothing.
Just walking around in the grass covered in morning dew, Sprout completely soaked his sneakers, socks, and the bottom half of his pants. I either wear Tevas or hiking boots camping, so I never really thought about it, but the grass was really wet. Thankfully, Chris had an extra pair of pants and his water shoes in the diaper bag.
Appreciate camping for camping – everything else is a bonus.
Fortunately, we had time in the morning to get in a lovely hike out of Big Meadows. However, I ended up abandoning plans both for getting in a shorter hike that Sprout could have done and seeing a birds of prey show at the Visitors’ Center. Between setting up, breaking down, and getting out before naptime, there simply wasn’t space in the schedule. While I was a little disappointed, Chris reminded me that while those other activities were nice, they really weren’t the point of camping. The point was to be out in nature, together as a family. Which we definitely accomplished.
While many things didn’t go quite as planned, I’m remembering the beauty that we did experience. Plus, I’ve already picked our next two camping destinations.
Las Vegas isn’t usually a place for families with toddlers or young kids; except when it is. We recently visited Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, Melissa and Steve, who live in the Vegas suburbs. In planning the trip, we found plenty to do for families of young children and had a great time with four days full of kid-friendly activities. We even could have filled a few more days if we had the time.
Whether you’re visiting relatives in Vegas or en-route to somewhere else, here are a few tips for bringing a toddler or other young child to the Las Vegas region:
1) Know that you’re going to be judged and just deal with it.
You could be bringing your child to get medical treatment in Vegas and you’d get snark from someone on the plane. We had a couple different people comment to him “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” and warning him not to drink too much, despite my protestations that we were visiting family. And God forbid you bring your kid to the Strip. When I was with Chris on our night out, I know I silently judged people (then realized better), despite the fact that we brought Sprout there only a few days earlier! Just explain why you’re there (or not), smile and move on.
2) Be selective about the Strip.
Honestly, the Strip is far from an ideal location for little kids, amongst the sex, drugs and gambling. Thankfully, they’re too little to understand any of it and there are some neat things of interest. Personally, we spent a little less than half a day there and it was perfect.
Before you go, know what you want to see. The place is huge and all of that walking can put a strain on even the most patient toddler or parent carrying/pushing them. We knew we wanted to see the Flamingo’s wildlife exhibit; the Bellagio’s gardens, glass ceiling, and fountain show; and the Mirage’s volcano show. We also planned to go the talking statues in Caesars’ Palace, but ran out of time. All of them worked out beautifully except the volcano show, which scared Sprout. He was fine until the end, which was really loud and bright and I think caused a bit of sensory overload.
Other activities in that area that seemed pretty family-friendly included the High Roller Ferris Wheel (very similar to the London Eye), the Mirage’s Secret Garden, the trip up the Paris’s “Eiffel Tower” and the Mandalay Bay’s Aquarium. However, all of those were pretty expensive so we skipped them. On the other end of the Strip, slightly older kids might like the lions at the MGM and the themes of New York, New York; the Luxor (Egyptian); and (medieval-lite castles).
3) Think beyond the Strip.
While many tourists never leave there, there’s a whole host of things to do for families off of the Strip. Las Vegas is an increasingly popular area for families to live – 350,000 kids in the school district! – and the area is trying to accommodate that growth.
A few blocks from Fremont St. is an upcoming area in the process of being redeveloped. One of the newest additions is the Downtown Container Park, a self-enclosed pedestrian shopping and entertainment era. Visitors are welcomed by a fire-breathing preying mantis and enter a lovely plaza with restaurants and shopping. We browsed an awesome retro toy store that is trying to “bring back pogs” (my mid-90s childhood appreciated the effort) and bought a shirt from the company Out of Print at a children’s clothing store. But the centerpiece of the complex is a giant, multi-story playground, with multiple slides, giant foam building blocks, and a sound/lights based movement game. I got excited and was a little disappointed that we needed to leave right after I finished shopping.
Another fabulous place to visit was Springs Preserve, a natural / state history museum / conservation center appropriate for all of the local schools’ field trip needs. Among its many exhibits, it included a simulated flash flood, live desert animals, the University of Nevada’s second place house for the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, desert adapted gardens, energy conservation arcade games, a desert-themed play area, and a train ride. Despite my deep love for state museums, we didn’t even get to the Nevada State Museum, which was also on the premises! Of course, Sprout’s favorite parts were the sandbox and water mister, but I admit they looked pretty fun. We didn’t have time, but the Discovery Children’s Museum also looks fantastic, with another multi-story climbing structure.
4) See some non-party animals.
Besides the flamingos, parrots, hummingbirds, and fish at the Flamingo and the tortoises, rabbits and tarantulas at Springs Preserve, there are also two mom-and-pop animal rescue facilities right near each other in the Vegas suburbs.
The Farm in Las Vegas is a homespun facility featuring a variety of farmyard critters, from huge cows to fluffy chickens. It features handwritten signs, old-fashioned mall toys (that no longer run, but are apparently awesome to climb up on), a number of local foodstuffs, and a substantial flock of peacocks. We actually bought peacock and bantam hen eggs and fried them up for breakfast at Melissa and Steve’s later on. While it isn’t a “petting zoo,” the manager did allow us to pet the giant potbellied pig, Kevin Bacon. Of course, among all of this, my kid and a few others decided their favorite thing was the sun-bleached toy kitchen in a weird little fenced-in area. It was a little slice of rural country life in suburban Las Vegas.
Right down the road, the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary is another volunteer-run, passion project that seems to take in any animals the greater Las Vegas region has to offer them. Goats that escaped their pen – including an adorable baby – roamed around, horses mixed with chickens, emus eyed my shiny phone, and ducks and swans swam together. While not nearly as polished as a tourist attraction, it’s hard to beat for only $4 a person. Plus, it’s nice to support a local, family-run organization that’s working to help animals that would have nowhere else to go otherwise.
5) Go hiking.
Only a half-hour or less from Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area. Red Rocks is exactly what is says in the title – spectacular red rocks, ranging in hue from orange-red to dark blood maroon. There’s a substantial interpretive exhibit at the Visitor’s Center that looks at the earth, air and water and how they relate to the landscape and human history of the place. For the littles, there are cool brass animal sculptures to sit on, desert tortoises to spot, and a Zoetrope to spin.
Going down the 17 mile one-way Scenic Road, you catch a number of spectacular outlooks and hiking trails. We did part of the Calico Tanks trail, which wandered down a canyon and was 1 mile each way. Labeled as moderate, it had a little bit of mild rock-scrambling, but was totally doable with a toddler in a baby backpack. It isn’t well-marked at all (totally disorienting for someone used to forest hikes), but it’s also pretty easy to orient yourself. If you are sharp-eyed, you can often spot rock-climbers scaling Red Rocks’ famed cliff-faces. While Sprout was content gazing at the scenery for the first half of the hike, he decided he absolutely needed to walk Melissa and Steve’s little terrier halfway through. As much of the path was neither toddler or small dog friendly, this resulted in a public, loud and potentially dangerous meltdown on the trail. He calmed down enough for Chris to carry him sans-backpack, but it almost gave me a stress-induced aneurysm. So great trail – if your kid is a little more patient than mine.
We had originally planned to let him walk the 3/4 mile paved Children’s Trail. Unfortunately, between the meltdown delay, the closeness of naptime, and an approaching rainstorm, we left the park instead. The start of the Trail has picnic tables with beautiful scenery and ancient Native American pictographs that are worth stopping at even if you don’t have time to do the whole thing.
I also highly recommend bringing your own water and lunch. Red Rocks is run by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Parks Service, so there is very limited food or vending on site.
5) Bring the baby backpack if you have one and leave the stroller at home.
Despite the Red Rocks rebellion, the baby backpack was immensely useful. I had to convince Chris to add it to our absurd amount of luggage, but it was worth it.
In Red Rocks, we would have been able to do only the simplest hikes without it. On the Strip, it gave him a birds’-eye view of everything, the opposite of what he would have had in a stroller. He loved looking at all of the bright signs, flashing lights and sketchy knock-off Disney characters (I’m looking at you, off-brand Olaf!). Plus, the narrow, crowded sidewalk would have been obnoxious to navigate in a stroller. While I love our stroller for everyday transportation, the baby backpack is much better when there’s a lot to see and you don’t want your kid stuck at looking at knees all day. Plus, no one handed my husband cards for “sexy ladies” while he was wearing the backpack. Even Vegas hawkers know there are some lines you just don’t cross.
6) Don’t assume the temperatures will be super hot.
Yes, Vegas can be very hot. But it isn’t all of the time. In mid-May, it barely went into the low-80s and it was usually too cold to go in Steve and Melissa’s pool. I was very glad I brought my jeans and spring jacket. Even when it’s climbing past 100, a lot of places are absurdly air conditioned as a response, making them feel freezing cold. Having back-up clothes and wells thought out extra layers is a good bet.
7) Visit a relative with a dog and a pool.
Obviously, this is not an option for everyone. But chasing Melissa and Steve’s little terrier around -and being chased back – was unquestionably Sprout’s favorite part of the trip.
For month, I had been excited to bring Sprout on his first camping trip. While it didn’t work out as planned, we’re lucky to have some great natural areas nearby.
I don’t love every aspect of camping – in particular how sore my back gets – but I do love all of the clichéd stuff: campfires, marshmellows, hiking, star-gazing. When I was a kid, my family did some tent camping, but my most vivid memories were of our old pop-up camper, listening to the rain hit the roof and sound like macaroni boiling. Later on, I went on group backcountry trips, where we hiked and canoed through the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Although Sprout is too young to remember or fully appreciate these pleasures yet, I want to cultivate this foundational love of nature that comes from regular exposure. (This article from Treehugger has several more reasons to bring kids camping.)
So we got ready for the trip, making reservations at Shenandoah National Park, picking which trails we wanted to tackle, reading The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Your Kids cover to cover, and gearing up at REI.
But the weather had other plans. The forecast predicted highs in the 60s and a 50-70 percent chance of thunderstorms all weekend. The combination of rain, potential lightning and chilly temperatures posed the double threat of being dangerous as well as uncomfortable. Packing up a sopping wet tent while looking after an exhausted toddler, possibly while it thunders, sounded like a special circle of hell. So much to my disappointment, we decided not to go.
Still wanting to get in some outdoors time, we headed over to our local nature center on Saturday morning. They have some short trails through the adjacent forest that looked simple on the map. Reading the nature center’s directions that hikers could call if they got lost, I laughed, “How could you get lost? It’s a couple of loops!” Oh, ye of little sense. Of course, we got lost. Not for long, but we did ramble down a trail that wasn’t maintained and not on the map. One thing the outdoors will quickly teach Sprout is that his parents aren’t perfect and shouldn’t be automatically trusted to know where we’re going. I hope he’s better with a map and compass than I am!
Despite the nearness to an urban environment, we had a lovely walk. A stream wound through the forest, with rocks creating riffles and waterfalls. Clusters of oyster mushrooms sprouted on downed logs. Woodpeckers knocked away at the trees, hunting for bugs. We spotted one’s bright red spot as he flew on the wing and a less-flashy female going about her business on a tree. A young buck with just the beginnings of antlers grazed across a stream from us, then bounded over and started following us. Once it was clear we posed no threat, he continued up the steep hill leading away from the water.
All the while, Sprout looked and listened, content from his perch in the hiking backpack. I think he missed many of the things we thought were interesting – the birds, the deer – but he has his own priorities.
After we wrapped up our hike, we stopped in the center itself, which has a number of live animals. Sprout was especially fascinated by the turtles, watching them swim in their tanks through the glass.
Our little pre-lunch outing couldn’t compare to a full camping trip in a National Park. But it did quench my thirst a little for a hike and reminded me how lucky we are to have some great parks nearby.