Summer camp is a great way to keep your kids active and entertained. But not all of us can afford the luxury. The average sleep-away camp costs $690 a week per child, according to the American Camp Association, and some camps can exceed $2,000. Even a typical day camp runs $304 a week, with for-profit day camps averaging $571. So what do you do if you are on a budget but want to prevent your kids from spending hours in front of the TV all summer? Create your own camp.
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There are several ways to give your kids a camp-like experience at home, says Liz Snyder, assistant director of Eagle's Nest Camp and Foundation in Pisgah Forest, N.C. And the cost can be next to nothing, depending on what supplies you already have. Here are Snyder's tips -- along with some activities from Eagle's Nest Camp -- that you can use to help your kids spend a week getting in touch with nature, having fun and staying off the couch.
Day 1: Learn survival skills
Show kids how to use a compass and a map. Then send them on a scavenger hunt that requires them to use their new skills. If you have older children, teach them about animal tracking (this resource can help) and head to the woods to see if they can find and identify tracks. You also can spend time sitting quietly to watch wildlife in action.
Day 2: Pick berries
Take the kids to a pick-your-own berry patch early in the day before it gets hot. When you get home with your bounty, you can make jam with this recipe for a small batch. Or make scones or muffins with your berries. Then celebrate your hard work with a tea party that includes what you and the kids made. Snyder says you can do this in one day or spread the activities (the picking, cooking and eating) out over a week.
Day 3: Take a hike
Bug hike. You can do this in your own yard, which makes it an easy activity for younger children. Gather a magnifying glass, jars and a paper and pencil to examine, collect or record the bugs you see. The National Wildlife Federation has a great bug hike guide to help you and your kids get the most out of this activity.
Wild edible hike. Many things found growing in fields, forests and even your backyard can be eaten and have great health benefits, Snyder says. Sites such as Eat The Weeds and Wildman Steve Brill can help you identify edible plants that grow in the wild. Even if the kids aren't brave enough to eat what they find in the yard or woods, they'll still have fun searching for things in nature that can be consumed.
Go on a creek hike. Many state parks and even city and county parks have waterways that are accessible to the public. Snyder suggests hiking upstream through a shallow creek, stopping along the way to turn over rocks and discover what lives under and around them. If fishing is allowed and you have a license, take along rods -- you can even make your own -- to see what you can catch. Perhaps you'll bring home dinner.
Day 4: Create a wildlife habitat or garden
Show kids that it's okay to get their hands a little dirty by planting vegetables and herbs they can eat or flowers and native plants to attract wildlife. You can even do this in a few large pots if you don't want to dig up your yard. Here are several tips on gardening for food and wildlife. You can add a craft element to this project by building a birdhouse (either from a kit or on your own) and letting the kids paint it and decide where to hang it.
Alternative activity: Build a fairy house. Snyder says that this activity is very popular with younger kids at Eagle's Nest. Gather bark, sticks, leaves, moss and other items to make a fairy house. You can take it a step further by building an entire village. Then let the kids have fun making up stories about the fairies that live there. You can even have them draw pictures of the fairies or a map of their fairy land.
Day 5: Camp out
Show your kids how to pitch a tent -- either in your backyard or at a campground. Teach them how to build a fire, and bring along food that you can cook over an open flame (don't forget s'mores). And the kids can make instruments (here are nine easy ones) to accompany them while they sing songs around the campfire. When it gets dark, look up at the stars and try to identify constellations. Hint: Smart phone astronomy apps can help.