Fishing is a great way to spend with day with your children. Once you’re at the stream, lake or river, a tiny hook with an even tinier piece of worm will attract palm-size fish that will seem like whales to children. Bend the hook barb with pliers for easier removal from fish (and it's safer for children this way).
Don’t forget to bring a camera; kids light up when they catch a fish! The best time to try your luck is at daybreak; but if the fish aren’t biting, children will lose interest quickly, and it's time to move on.
If you don’t own a canoe, choose a destination that rents them. Getting in and out is the only really tricky part, so it’s safe to assume someone will get at least one foot wet. Pack a picnic lunch and paddle to a nearby island or isolated cove. Use resealable plastic bags or specially made dry bags to keep food, cameras and other gear dry. Most importantly of all, everyone must always wear a life jacket.
Short legs move slowly and tire quickly, so plan brief hikes. (To keep things in perspective, an adult walks a mile in about 20 minutes, while a 6-year-old camper needs up to an hour and a half to cover that distance.) It's just as well, though.
For children, the journey is often better than the destination. Let them investigate every fallen log and turn over every stone. Remember to take frequent rest stops and drink plenty of fluids.
Kids love to discover animal tracks in the wild. After all, the imagining of what it might be (it's a bear!) is almost always more exotic that what it really is (it's only a squirrel). Field guides to animal tracks, which show you where to look and what to look for, are available at most bookstores.
At many larger national and state parks, ranger stations have handouts you can use to identify the tracks you might find in your surroundings. If you're concerned about coming face-to-face with an animal, don't be. Kids tend to be far too noisy for that to happen.
It's fairly easy to guide a nature walk for kids by yourself. Bring along a few field guides and identify some of the more common flowers, trees, birds and animals ahead of time. Then you can point these out confidently as you come upon them.
When kids ask you to identify something you don't recognize, stop and look it up. Just be certain you know how to identify irritating plants like poison ivy, and teach children to never pick or even touch any mushrooms.
Visiting the ranger station
National and state parks often have ranger stations. If you're camping at a park that does, make a trek there with the kids. Stations vary from one park to the next, but they frequently have nature displays and other educational exhibits. But for kids, the best motivation for going to the ranger station is the chance to meet a real live park ranger.
Park rangers wear uniforms and know all sorts of interesting things. From a kid's perspective, they're simply larger than life. At some park stations, rangers give regularly scheduled lectures for kids on everything from camping safety to identifying animal tracks. Sometimes rangers guide nature walks geared to different age groups. These are both great fun and educational—a combination that can’t be beat.
Parents will also find rangers and ranger stations informative. You can get the latest weather forecast, find out about good hikes, pick up maps and literature, and ask these knowledgeable people any camping or outdoor-related question you might have.