The one thing camping gives modern-day kids

The freedom found in camping.
The freedom found in camping. Photo: Getty

Before we had children we camped a lot. Alone. With friends. But somehow we just kept putting it off after we had kids. Maybe it was the idea of taking our son, who managed to get into all sorts of trouble just sitting in a car seat, into the bush and letting him loose. Whatever it was, it took us a while to pluck up the courage to dig out the old tent and the stove and head off. And last year we camped for the first time with our children. 

We went with friends. Three families. Seven kids. Ranging in age from nine down to three. All girls except for my son who was one of the youngest. It took about two hours for the kids to settle. Jumping out of the car, they dashed off to scope the place out. Did a couple of laps. Worked out where they were. And then they were gone. We didn’t see them for hours at a time, and they’d only wander back to the camp when they were really hungry, or had been bitten by a bull ant. There was nothing much to do. Except walk in circles through the bush, along the track, check the koalas, pat the horses in a paddock, collect firewood and walk back. But they did that happily for hours every day for a whole week. At the end I asked my kids what they’d liked best about camping. Was it sleeping in a tent? The sound of koalas fighting? Eating burnt marshmallows from a stick? No. It was the freedom of playing without being seen by an adult.

And that’s what camping is. Getting dirty and not being made to have a bath. Eating beans cold from a tin. Sharing food. Sitting around a fire. And weeing in the bush. Of course kids love it. It’s like the ultimate adventure. For the whole week we were out of range. No computers. No phones. No technology. The only noises were bush noises. Koalas fighting. Hungry possums trying to raid our food stash each night. And the wind that blew through the flimsy walls of the tent.

It felt like the childhood I’d had. The freedom to play unwatched. To roam in a pack, seeking out your own fun. I’d forgotten how much you long for that as a child. Being able to disappear and return when you’re ready. And because of the way many of us live now, crammed into houses in the inner city, scared of our kids riding a bike to a friend’s place, children don’t have that freedom. So they bask in it when they do.

Growing up on the fringes of the outer eastern suburbs, I spent a lot of time outdoors. Playing in mud. Digging in dirt. Riding horses. Climbing trees. It was fun, free and healthy. I collected bird’s nests and dead huntsman spiders and was obsessed with Harry Butler. I remember playing cricket with friends on the big oval in the middle of town and reaching into the long grass for the ball and instead brushing my fingers along the warm skin of a sleeping brown snake. I wasn’t scared. Instead I called everyone over to take a look.

My kids have grown up in a suburb in Melbourne’s inner north. They spend a lot of time outside. Making cubbies and digging holes in our backyard. Gardening and kicking the soccer ball. They love dirt and mud. They love hanging upside down in the one tree we have they can climb in. But even though we are lucky enough to have some space, we can still see our kids whenever they are outside, so it’s little wonder they love the freedom of a campsite so much. From now on we’ll save our holiday money and return each year for a cheap family camping adventure, where kids are happy to walk along paths finding wallabies and go hunting for twigs and feathers and rocks. Where peanut butter toast tastes just right, and a burnt marshmallow is like the promise of gold.