Children only spend four to seven minutes a day playing outside, according to some experts. Between adult fears, stuffed schedules and screen time, we don’t encourage our children to play freely and explore the world around them.
And that robs them of many opportunities, including a first-hand experience in biology and environmental science, real-life problem solving and long-lasting family memories.
One way to deepen children’s connection to nature? Take them camping.
“Taking children camping provides them an incredible opportunity to open children up to a lot of different experiences,” says Gary Quigley, one of the founding family members of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ at Kozy Rest in Harrisville, Butler County. “I camped with my family for 15 years while growing up, and we thoroughly enjoyed that time together and created a lot of cherished memories.”
Jellystone Park has no shortage of children’s and family activities, from hiking in the woods, exploring nearby Moraine State Park and swimming to mini-golf, wagon rides and family movie night. “I think it’s important to get children into the outdoors,” adds Quigley, “because you rarely see kids outside playing and exploring together. Another benefit is the chance for families to do things as a family, rather than the hustle and bustle of life nowadays.”
In addition to privately owned campgrounds like Jellystone Park, Pennsylvania has more than 100 state parks, many within an hour or two drive of Pittsburgh. It’s easy to find one near you.
This year is also the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, for families interested in venturing farther afield for breathtaking camping experiences.
Jessica Tebbets of Crafton took her family camping at Kozy Rest last summer. She says they all loved being outside and trying new things, “without iPads or the Xbox. We didn’t miss them all that much.” The children learned to fish, catch salamanders and make s’mores. Tebbets says her husband Paul and twins Katie and Ben, 7, already have a few more trips planned for this summer.
Jen Zbozny of Hollidaysburg, Blair County, and her daughter Eve, 8, caught the camping bug early. Zbozny used to set up a tent in the yard for Eve to play and nap in as an infant, then as a toddler.
“That led to sleeping outside in the yard, so she got used to how it sounds and feels to be in a tent outside overnight,” Zbozny says.
Now, Jen and Eve camp regularly, at least three times a year. Sometimes, they stay in cabins, but they try to do at least one tent camping trip. “We look for state or national parks with campgrounds that have easily accessible trails, clean bath houses, a playground and kayaking or canoeing opportunities. Camping lets us spend hours together tromping from stone to stone in a stream or discovering fish and frogs, or examining rocks, bugs and birds.”
Eve adds, “It’s a real treat to go, and I would like to go lots more often!”
Andy McDuffie and Courtney Anderson of Highland Park are the parents of Olive, 2 1/2, and have already taken her to the woods for several excursions at Cook Forest and Linn Run. “We like these spots because they are not too far from Pittsburgh and they have access to water features, which lends to hours of fun,” says Anderson.
“We just like being outside and watching Olive get to work with a stick or rocks,” she says of her favorite part of camping. “We can keep busy for hours throwing rocks in the river, collecting acorns, stacking twigs and digging.”
Certainly camping with children comes with challenges. “I like things clean and organized,” says Tebbets. “Camping is dirty. Eventually I just have to give into the dirt.” Anderson and Zbozny say that getting some shut-eye away from home can be elusive, but they are not letting that stop them.
“We often meet up with friends when going to state parks,” says Anderson. “Olive loves spending time with the big kids. She also loves just getting dirty and exploring.”
Zbozny, who is one of those friends Anderson mentions, says, “I love being out in the woods however it happens. What’s fun with Eve is participating in how she soaks up the outside world of the woods over a longer frame of time.”
Here’s a short list of some tried-and-true favorite camping spots that Kidsburgh parents shared with us:
Cook Forest State Park
Size: 8,500 acres
Camping: 210 campsites, including many with electric hookups and some that are ADA accessible.
Hiking: 29 miles
Linn Run State Park, Westmoreland County
Size: 612 acres
Camping: Rustic cabins available for renting (electricity and heat; no running water). Bathhouses available nearby. Renters provide towels, linens, cookware and tableware.
Hiking: 6.25 miles of trails
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ at Kozy Rest, Butler County
Size: 34 acres
Camping: Tent sites, yurts and full-service rental cabins.
Hiking: Nearby Moraine State Park offers 28 miles of trails