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Play that revolves around real-world themes (often called play projects) are great ways to engage kids’ imaginations and spark hours of independent play. One of our favorite play invitations this time of year is camping! If your family is planning a real-life camping trip this summer, a pretend campout is a super way for kids to learn and practice camping skills within the comfort of an imaginary world. Having this pretend experience can make the real camping trip feel even smoother for kids (and for their grown-ups too). And, even if your family is not quite ready to head out for a camping trip just yet, a pretend campout is a great way to connect kids with nature and spark hours (or days) of imaginative play.
Invite play: Ask, “Would you like to go on a pretend camp-out?” Take a walk together around your yard or favorite outdoor space and look for the perfect spot to set up camp. What would make a good camp-out spot? What features are in your outdoor space that your child could incorporate into their camping play?
Set up camp: Create a cozy hideaway or set up a real tent in your outdoor space. For a simple hideaway, all you need is a bed sheet or tarp and something to drape it over (i.e. tree branch, table, chairs). Work together as a team in imagining, planning and building a hideaway using your materials. If all falls apart, you can always suggest one of the simple structures in this video.
Pack a camping bag: Now that you set up camp, what does your child want to bring on their pretend camping trip? Offer a backpack or bag and invite kids to fill it with their camping “gear”. What objects would help them sleep at night in their tent? What games or books might they bring? What kitchen items might they pack to eat their meals? Once they’ve gathered materials, kids can “hike” to their campsite, unpack and arrange their items in and around their tent.
Build a fire: Suggest that a campfire will help keep kids warm at the campsite and can be used to cook their food, too! Invite kids to gather sticks and rocks in their camping backpack. Model arranging the rocks in a circle near the campsite and welcome kids to arrange sticks inside the circle to make a fire. Pretend to warm your hands near the fire (but don't get too close!) and add more sticks and leaves to make the fire bigger.
Have a cook-out: Offer a few kitchen items you don't mind getting dirty (muffin tins, bowls, spoons) and a container of water and invite kids to use mud and nature treasures to create their own campsite feast. Put a bowl or pot of water near the pretend campfire and invite kids to shop for “ingredients” around their outdoor space to make their own nature soup. Or, stick a ball of mud or forest putty at the end of a stick and roast your own marshmallows.
Campsite games: Tell campfire stories, sing songs or read a book at the pretend campsite together. Invite family members or stuffed animal friends to join you, too!
Take down camp: If you can, leave the campsite in place for a few days so kids can continue to add to the play throughout the week. When it’s time to take down the campsite, make it part of the play adventure. Invite kids to pack up their camping bag, extinguish their pretend fire with water, and return sticks and nature items to where they were found to model the concept of “leave no trace”.
This activity incorporates many universally engaging play activities for kids, such as enclosing themselves within small, cozy spaces, cooking play, and collecting and packing up play materials. Pretending to camp out is a play theme that can extend over time and in many directions, giving kids chances to iterate on their ideas and invent new play scenarios. Pretend camping, like the real experience, also offers kids the chance to stimulate multiple senses and connect to their outdoor environment. As kids pretend to set up a tent, build a fire and cook, they get hands-on experience with camping skills and can even learn about fire safety. Best of all, this type of imaginative play is a super way to create playful family memories together.