Who needs summer camp? Campgrounds aren’t just pit toilets and camping sites nowadays. Increasingly, campgrounds are adding educational programs and activities designed to help the whole family learn about the outdoors. “It’s really amazing the variety of nature-oriented activities that privately owned and operated campgrounds provide to children and their families,” says Paul Bambei, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds, which hosts GoCampingAmerica.com, a searchable database of more than 3,300 privately owned and operated campgrounds, RV parks and resorts, which offer fun family activities as well as rental accommodations. Many parks featured on the website are also located near state and national parks or have onsite nature activities and attractions.
While many national and state parks have remained largely the same, and struggled with budget cuts and closings, privately owned campgrounds have begun to cater to what families want to experience. Some are more like old-fashioned dude ranches, with activities and kid-friendly education built into your stay. At the Jellystone Park Camp-Resort in Swansea, S.C., children can participate in educational scavenger hunts in the great outdoors. “We’ll give the kids pages and turn them loose to go find different types of bugs, leaves and moss,” says park co-owner Susan Moubray. “We have 12 different varieties of ferns here, as well as oaks and maples. We also have Mexican petunias. The children can pick every flower off of that plant and the next day it will bloom again with 100 flowers.”
At Lock 30 Woodlands RV Resort Campground in Lisbon, Ohio, children and their families are encouraged to visit the park’s organic herb and vegetable garden.“We’re big on gardening,” says park co-owner and master gardener Karen Anesi. “Last year, we established a ‘Weed a little, pick a little” community vegetable garden in which we encourage our guests to help themselves to herbs, tomatoes, salad fixings and the like. This year, we have a running PowerPoint at the front desk in which we talk about the weather, the activities of the weekend and what needs picking.”
Anesi also plans to allow children to help plant a pumpkin patch in the campground either on Memorial Day or on the days preceding it. “I am Master Gardener certified, so I’ll do a program about how seeds germinate and why pumpkins, a squash, are delicate and must be planted after the last frost in Ohio. Kids will plant their own seeds and then in the fall, when these pumpkins are ready to pick, we’ll have a ‘Paint Your Pumpkin’ contest in which every participant is a winner,” Anesi explained.
Another Ohio campground, Lazy River at Granville in Granville, Ohio, complements its many outdoor activities with visits by a teacher they affectionately call “The Bug Lady.” “She’s like a pied piper,” says park owner Mark Kasper. “She comes to the park several times during the summer, equipped with a suitcase full of insects, and leads visitors on fascinating walks to discover various insects.”
Tips for “Getting Your Nature On”:
- Call ahead and ask your campground what programs they offer and if there are any fees. Also, ask if they recommend any local naturalists or tour operators, sometimes they work closely with local experts and can arrange a custom tour for your family.
- Ask local families when you arrive what they like to do. Often they can suggest free activities that their kids love.
- Research at the state and national parks close to your campground. They have lots of resources for families and waiting until you arrive might cause you to miss something you really want to participate in.
- Teach your kids to entertain themselves in nature. Start with 5-10 minutes and work up until they can spend over an hour being on their own.
- Start a scrapbook or collection of rocks, leaves, flowers or whatever your child enjoys. Plan your trip around collecting specimens and ask your camp host for help finding enthusiasts who can add to your knowledge base.