Along with lemonade stands, lazy beach days and backyard barbecues, summer camp has become a time-honored tradition for children. A few glorious weeks away from Mom and Dad not only gives your kid a chance to unplug and play, but helps her learn to act independently. According to research conducted between 2001 and 2004 by the American Camp Association (published in a 2005 paper entitled Youth Development Outcomes of the Camp Experience), camp experiences lead to significant growth in the self-esteem, leadership, and independence of campers. 70 percent of parents also reported that the camp experience helped their child gain self-confidence.
But with camp prices skyrocketing, sending your kid off to summer camp can feel like you're springing for an all-expense paid vacation rather than a few weeks in the woods. If you'd like to give your little one the benefits of summer camp without spending a bundle, consider a clever alternative: a DIY summer camp at home. In addition to keeping costs in check, DIY camp activities can double as educational tools that keep your kid's mind sharp and engaged during the break from school. Use the tips below to give your child an at-home summer camp experience she'll never forget, without paying an arm and a leg:
- Bring the outside in. Usher your child outside from dawn 'til dusk, taking advantage of long, warm summer days. Christopher McFarland, former Scout Camp counselor with Boy Scouts of America, explains, "Many of the best moments for campers happen in the great outdoors. Kids today spend so much time during the school year shuttled from one programmed activity to the next that they forget to go outside once in awhile, and camp is a way to get back that lost time." Encourage your kid and her friends to get back in touch with nature using DIY art crafted from outdoor materials. Try creating pine cone wreaths, leaf collages, or pressed blossom bookmarks. Display the woodsy decorations around the house to ensure your child's proud of her artistry.
- Forest foraging. Capture the feeling of getting back to nature by blazing a path through a nearby forest with your child. Choose a safe wooded area where you both won't get lost, and let your kid carve a route through the trees. As you travel, use the opportunity to point out different types of flora and fauna, and educate your child on which plants and berries are poisonous. Help your camper discover these facts for herself with a take-along field guide such as Mel Boring, Diane Burns and Leslie Dendy's Fun with Nature: Take Along Guide.
- Start a food fight. After a lesson about healthy eating, stage an outdoor food fight for a fun, messy way to release pent-up energy. Choose an empty patch of yard that's far away from anything you wouldn't want splattered, and let your swimsuit-clad campers go to town with soft, safe food, such as whipped cream, bananas or sliced bread, and let everyone run through sprinklers afterward to clean off.
- Camp out. Summer camp's all about bunking in tents with new pals, sharing ghost stories and forging friendships without the help of Mom and Dad. Recreate the experience by inviting some neighborhood kids over to sleep under the stars. Let your camper and her pals work together to construct their sleeping place for the night (depending on their age, skill, and maturity level, you can offer them a tent and instructions or leave them to their own devices entirely). Resist the urge to help; explains McFarland, "Learning to work with others in an unfamiliar situation like tent building helps kids pick up the same social skills and independence they'd gain from group camp activities."
- DIY tie-dye. Coming home with a tie-dye t-shirt (and socks, sheets, and pillow case!) is one of the telltale signs of a classic camp experience. Help your kid craft a year-round memento of her own summer fun by creating a DIY tie-dye station at home. If you're looking to go the traditional route, purchase several colors of tie-dye from a craft store and follow the directions to prepare, then let your camper experiment with different colors and patterns on white t-shirts or sheets. Try using Kool-Aid tie-dye for an inexpensive alternative, or go eco-friendly with all-natural dye.
- Smart stargazing. On a clear night, head outside (preferably to a dark area) to check out the stars with your little one. In addition to admiring an open sky, make it a learning experience by teaching your kid about constellations. Download an app for your smartphone or tablet, such as Night Sky or Sky Map, that highlights constellations when aimed at the sky. To keep the low-tech feel of an outdoor camp, try a kid-friendly astronomy guidebook.
- Kitchen campfire. Since s'mores are quintessential summer camp fare, top a long day of learning off with kitchen s'mores. Begin by roasting marshmallows over the stove top, and keep a mixture of toppings on hand that enhance the standard graham cracker and chocolate combo. For an educational twist, challenge your child to dream up healthy s'more add-ins that still taste good—try strawberries, peanut butter, and bananas to start!
By giving your kid the summer camp experience at home, you're helping her get in touch with nature and bond with friends at a fraction of the cost. As a result, you're teaching her how to be a savvy consumer in addition to sharing all the new camp skills she's picking up. Before you know it, she'll be begging to go back to "camp" all year round!