Craving old-fashioned family fun? Then put away the video games and pitch a tent in your backyard for a night of analog activities under the stars. (Older kids—tweens and up—are probably ready for a real campsite, but children 7 and under may not be prepared to rough it.) By sticking close to home, your kids can feel safe and secure, be within walking distance of a bathroom, and still enjoy a wonderful family bonding experience. In fact, there's no reason to limit your guest list to family: A backyard campout also makes for a terrific sleepover party or birthday celebration.
Before you run off to the local megastore to buy equipment, see what you already have in your house. Stephanie Ogozalek, an avid camper and a blogger at MommyPoppins.com, insists you won't need a lot of equipment if you're hitting the great outdoor patio. "Get a tent, sleeping bags or bedrolls, a backpack, and flashlights; that's really it," she says. Coleman makes excellent gear, including a huge selection of tents, but Ogozalek cautions against spending a lot of money. "Buy a run-of-the-mill pop-up tent," she advises. Even though you'll be only a few steps away from your home, make sure the kids pack and bring everything they would need for a real overnight trip. This means pajamas, a change of clothes, can't-live-without toys, a camera, books, etc. You can also include a compass, canteens, binoculars, drinks, snacks, and food to barbecue. Just make sure your bags aren't too heavy—you're about to go on an adventure.
You could walk out the back door into the yard, but why do this when you can hike around the neighborhood? Put on your backpacks and head out to enjoy nature. (Parents, it's okay to "cheat" by leaving unwieldy items like the tent at home.) Are there nearby roads you've never walked down or a park you've never visited? Now is the time to explore them. If you have a compass or a map—or even a GPS on your phone —plot a course and see if your kids can navigate it. Pull out those binoculars and see which birds you can identify. Take nature samples by picking up leaves, flowers, or rocks to analyze later. Snap some photos. Just make sure to be back at your campsite, aka your backyard, about an hour before sundown.
You may be exhausted from your journey, but there's work to be done. Make sure the kids help put up the tent (a pop-up shouldn't take more than a few minutes to mount), unroll sleeping bags, and set up the tent's interior. Try out your sleeping spots and check on the supplies. Do you have everything you need to spend the night? Pillows? A battery-powered nightlight? Snacks and beverages? This is a good time to make one last trip inside for any necessities you may have forgotten. If you opted to barbecue or roast food, get the grill going or create a fire pit (for a super-authentic experience). An adult should always prep and monitor these stations carefully while the kids play.
The fun really starts when the sun goes down. Stargazing is a popular camping activity, but identifying constellations isn't easy. Get an updated version of Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey (the author behind Curious George) or visit Websites such as NASA.gov, NASA's Space Place, and SeaSky.org. Scavenger hunts can entertain before it gets dark: Compile a list of objects to find, like specific leaves, flowers, and plants, or hide items like marshmallows, bottle caps, marbles, and other little items.
You can also search for particularly icky bugs underneath rocks. "Observing insects is an excellent way for kids to learn respect for nature; bugs shouldn't just be stomped on, they're an integral part of our ecosystem," says Melissa Chapman, editor of TheStatenIslandFamily.com. If you packed paper and crayons, make nature rubbings. Pick an interesting leaf, lay it down on a flat surface like the driveway, put a piece of white paper over it, turn your crayon lengthwise, and rub over the leaf. Or press leaves and flowers into a book as mementos of your backyard campout.
Some families may decide to break the campout tradition by heading indoors for a traditional meal at the dining room table. If you do, make a rule: no television, no texting, no computers or other electronic distractions. If you choose to eat outdoors, you can pop into the house for real dishes and utensils (no need to add more plastic forks and plates to your local landfill) and then dine by the flames. Or illuminate your meal by creating a "campfire" of candles or flashlights (make sure to pack extra batteries.) No matter how you eat, remember that dinner should be bonding time. Ask the kids how they're enjoying their adventure with questions such as "What's your favorite part so far?" and "What are you looking forward to later?" Pick favorite songs for the time-honored tradition of singing around the campfire.
Kids love s'mores, so make sure to roast some in the kitchen or over an open campfire in your backyard. It's also a treat to tell ghost stories over flickering flames. If camping with older kids, 9 and up, read from Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, which contains 14 horrifying stories that Dahl chose from over 749 tales. With younger kids, try titles like Woo! The Not-So-Scary Ghost or The Not-So-Scary Monster Handbook. Get creative and make up your own stories or take turns stringing together a tale that winds its way toward a terrifying (or tame) conclusion. If you're able to rustle up a small projector, hang up a white bed sheet as a screen and watch a family movie under the stars. (Who needs 3-D?) Don't forget to make popcorn over the fire or in your microwave.
Don't bother trying to enforce a curfew. "Not a lot of sleeping happens, especially if you've got more than one kid in a tent," says Ogozalek. Expect lots of giggling and tossing and turning, but at some point, the kids will get tired. Challenge them to tough out the night in the tent instead of having them sleep in their own beds. Aim to keep them outside for as long as possible. If they're cold, grab another blanket. If the sleeping bags are uncomfortable, put a mattress or cot onto the patio. If they're scared of spooky shadows or strange sounds, remind them that Mom and Dad are right there to protect them. If they insist on going back into the house, that's okay—a good night's sleep trumps the outdoor experience. Determine what's best for your child's well-being, as backyard camping shouldn't be miserable but memorable.
Raven Snook has written for Time Out New York, New York Magazine, The Village Voice, and TV Guide. She currently works at home in her pajamas for MommyPoppins.com, a local NYC events site for families.