The first time Jackie Ostfeld took her kids camping, it was to a spot they knew well: their backyard.
“They had the best time of their life,” says Ostfeld, director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign and mother of two. “It was a really nice introduction and a really peaceful experience for us.”
Backyard camping can be the perfect precursor to bigger outdoor adventures; it can also be less stressful—and less expensive—than hauling gear and food out to faraway campsites, while still delivering all the benefits of being outside (plus indoor plumbing).
Those benefits include a stronger sense of environmental stewardship and a better ability to de-stress. But the benefits don’t stop there: Camping so close to home can also help develop important life skills, such as resilience, teamwork, and independent thinking.
“A backyard campout can strengthen family bonds and create a sense of accomplishment for every participant,” says Carey Stanton, head of innovation and partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation. “It encourages creative play and imagination, improves sensory and observation skills, and builds self-esteem and confidence. And it’s fun!”
Check out the ways backyard camping can improve key executive functioning skills in children, plus some fun activities to give kids an amazing outdoor adventure.
Packing in some life skills
Backyard camping can be exciting for kids, but it’ll also help them develop some important life skills.
Observation. Camping at home allows kids to look at a familiar space in a different way. Whether it’s seeing their backyard in the dark for the first time or realizing that things taste different outside, backyard camping offers kids a fresh perspective.
“Helping children discover those moments and see what’s around them is a really important foundation,” Ostfeld says.
Environmental stewardship. Backyards are microcosms of the world. The grass, bugs, and potted plants just outside your home represent a small-scale opportunity for kids to engage with nature. “Children who spend time in nature often become better stewards of the environment as adults,” Stanton says. “A backyard campout helps children discover the wonders of nature where they live and develop lifelong habits of seeking nature for its many restorative benefits.”
Courage. For some kids, sleeping in the middle of the woods can be scary. By experiencing the dark in a familiar setting, you can help encourage bravery and develop their confidence to overcome other fears. With a parent’s support, Ostfeld says, backyard camping provides a foundation of safety so that kids feel comfortable to try new things.
Teamwork and leadership. Kids are often wary of working together to accomplish something if it means they might get embarrassed for their efforts. But Ostfeld says getting the backyard sleepout-ready so close to home—where they often feel safest and most in control—can provide kids with the confidence to pull it all together. And that can help develop leadership skills. “If you give your kids certain responsibilities and jobs related to the campout,” Ostfeld says, “you can really give your kids some opportunities to lead and shine.”
Adaptability. Sometimes you plan a s’mores night—and it rains. Or siblings accustomed to sleeping in separate bedrooms realize one of them snores. Stanton says when kids push through hurdles and come up with solutions (instead of retreating back inside the house), they’re learning about resiliency. “Campout experiences help children develop their imaginations and [learn] how to enjoy both group and individual activities,” she says. Parents can help by having kids think about multiple outcomes during the planning stages (What if it rains? What do we do about annoying bugs?)—and tempering their own negative reactions when things don’t go as planned.
Adventures in backyard camping
Camping in the backyard will be enough to get many kids excited. Others will need a little more encouragement. Try these ideas for a true backyard adventure.
Give your campsite a personality. Think of the backyard as a new country. Children can design its flag, write a national anthem, and even create “laws” (for instance, no leaving the country except for bathroom breaks; evenings must end with storytelling). The activity will activate imaginations, encourage family bonding, and create a framework for the evening’s activities.
Make your own shelter. Turn the afternoon before the campout into a make-your-own shelter adventure. For an instant family hideaway, secure an old blanket or bedsheet over a sturdy tree branch with a rope, then anchor the parts close to the ground with a few rocks. (For something a little craftier, try these instructions for a cardboard sleeping fort.) The activity amps up the excitement, and nervous kids will be eager to try out their new “house.”
Play camping bingo. By day your backyard might be the ho-hum alternative to the local park, but Stanton says a backyard campout can show kids the veritable treasure chest outside their door. A game of camping bingo can help them focus in on items they might not have noticed before. Make a quick set of cards with items they can look out for (a dandelion, a ladybug, a spiderweb); the first to get a bingo wins. (These printable Neighborhood Safari cards can come in handy, too.) Bonus idea: Magnifying glasses can result in surprising finds.
Get quiet. Usually when kids appear, wildlife scatters. But at night, kids can lean into the quiet as they get ready to sleep outside—and perhaps encounter local animals they wouldn’t normally see. Learn about the animals in your area ahead of time, then bring a recording device to record what you hear. (A phone will work, but an old-fashioned tape recorder is less likely to tempt a game of “Minecraft.”) “Nighttime is a really important time for wildlife to be able to come out and not fear the crowds and all the noise,” Ostfeld says. “It’s a really beautiful time for observation of nocturnal species.”
Build a “campfire.” Even if you don’t have a fire pit in your backyard, you can still have all the fun that a campfire brings. “Use your imagination to create a pretend campfire using sticks, rocks, and dandelions or other items you find outside,” Stanton suggests. Prepare snacks in advance (including s’mores), then munch on them while you tell stories and sing songs around your “campfire.”
Get low and go slow. Encourage kids to take a bug’s-eye view of the backyard and sketch some of the flora and fauna in your yard. Kids can turn over rocks, dig in the dirt, or crawl in the garden to get a closer look at what’s out their back door. Want to keep the fun going post-campout? Save their notes and drawings, then spend an afternoon identifying the trees and bugs that were particularly fascinating.