Three years ago, our family was getting ready to move. With postings to Syria and Borneo, my husband and I spent several years regularly boarding planes with our three young kids, exploring our host countries and surrounding areas at every opportunity- and loved it. However, regular plane trips from infancy influenced our now primary school-aged children. To them, this was the norm and ‘everyone’ had visited places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Jordan and Lebanon. As much as I truly believe in the benefits of travelling and exploring the world with kids, I asked myself whether we were modelling sustainable travel to them by choosing to fly everywhere.
Moving from Borneo to Oman, we knew we could change the family travel pattern. Tourism and hotel availability in Oman sharply increased over the last decade but it is still a vast, desert country. Only a 4×4 and a tent would allow us to truly experience Oman’s remote and rugged glory. We prepared to embrace family camping, introducing it to our kids as an alternative to planes to explore our surroundings (1).
I can’t say I had a lot of experience as a camper prior to starting our Oman family adventure. I’ll admit to feeling a little apprehensive packing for our first overnight trip in the desert alone. But the desert captivated me at the sight of the first star. Sure, camping requires a fair bit of planning and preparations. And yes, sand gets everywhere, the creepy crawlies can be bothersome and some people turn a bit smelly after two days without a shower. Still, we love it. Here is why:
Camping allows for unscheduled ‘free’ time
Camping is ‘time off’ for the entire family. Research, according to Dr. Sam Wass of Cambridge University, suggests that between school, organised activities and homework, primary school children have precious little ‘free’ time (2). By ‘free’ time, I mean unstructured, allowing for spontaneous play, child-initiated activities or simply boredom. According to Dr. Wass, children should ideally have about three hours of free time per day.
While three hours may sound unrealistic, I agree with the idea. Scheduling busy lives for ourselves and our kids, we often miss out on the opportunity to just ”wing it”. As a parent to three primary school children, I know that free time during week days can be a challenge. Even with the best intentions, free time often gives way to other commitments for us.
Camping, however, has no agenda. Our kids take the lead and are allowed freedom, within reason, to choose how they spend their time.
Camping is ‘off the grid’
If it is difficult to provide children with free time during the week, it can be equally difficult to limit screen time. Camping, for us, has been an opportunity to introduce family screen-free time. My middle child, who struggles to accept limitations to screen time at home, unquestioningly accepts that camping is ‘off the grid’ and screens get a break.
Hands-on learning opportunities
With three years of hands-on camping experiences under their belts, our kids can light a fire, sharpen sticks, climb or scramble up almost any rock surface and find potential hazards in their environment. They learned about climate, water conservation, geology, cultural adaptions, holidays and basic etiquette here in Oman. On our camping adventures, we try to practice our limited Arabic, a challenge in Muscat. We tell stories around the campfire and look for star constellations at night. We sustain ourselves with what we bring, both our imaginations and the supplies in the back of our 4×4.
I’m not sure I have succeeded in being more sustainable in my new mode of travel, and I do miss the delight of flying somewhere new several times per year. I know for sure that my kids’ idea of ‘travel’ and what it entails, has developed and changed though – and that was my goal from the start.
(1) Obviously, my 4×4 is not the greenest of vehicles. The plane vs. car debate is vast, and have been discussed by people far better qualified. Our intention was simply to try and shake our kids’ perception that frequent flying was something ‘everyone’ did.
The research/ report referenced above is tied to the company Centre Parks UK. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to my bias; I would love to see our lives a little less busy and I strive to make that happen for my children.
This article was first published in Destinations, issue 78, Spring/Summer 2017