Outdoor Play

Camp Out (Or In)!

By: Tinkergarten
Child playing in indoor tent
Ages 0-8
Critical Thinking


Setting up a pretend camp-out is a great play project to teach toddlers, preschoolers and elementary age kids a host of things from creativity to critical thinking to connection with the outdoors.

Play that revolves around real-world themes (often called play projects) are great ways to engage kids’ imaginations and spark hours of independent play. One of our favorite play invitations is camping! 

Plus, a pretend campout is a super way for kids to learn and practice camping skills and campfire safety within the comfort of an imaginary world. And, even if your family is not quite ready to head out for a camping trip just yet, a pretend campout connects kids with nature and sparks hours (or days) of imaginative play. 

What To Do

Step 1: Decide where you will camp out.

Camping out is a fantastic experience whether you are in the woods, on a campsite, in the backyard or even in the living room!

Step 2: Set up a shelter.

If you have a tent and can keep it up, pitch it today! If not, drape a bed sheet to create a tent or fort for your little one. Kids can enjoy picnics, cozy story time, flashlight play and all kinds of pretending in the new shelter. 

Kids playing with flashlights in a tent

Kids can also enjoy making cozy shelters for stuffed animal friends. Place two sticks in the ground and drape a piece of fabric on top to create a tent for a stuffy friend. Or, create a lean-to by leaning sticks against a tree trunk or other structure. Add leaves, grasses and other materials to make the shelter extra soft and cozy for friends.

Step 3: Add to your campsite.

Here are some of our favorite ways to extend the play and the memories at a real or pretend campsite:

  • Build a "Fire"—Wonder, what do we need to make a pretend campfire? Challenge your kiddo to gather and arrange sticks and nature treasures to build a fire. Place balls of forest putty on one end of a stick to roast pretend s’mores.
  • "Cook out"—Head to or set up your mud kitchen to whip up some camping food. Give kids dirt, water and kitchen items, or just “cook” over your pretend campfire. Learn how to set up a simple mud kitchen here. Want to make some real campfire treats? Try out some of our favorite kid-friendly recipes that can be cooked over a campfire, backyard grill or the kitchen stove.
  • Make your own sky!—Place a light bed sheet or piece of paper on the ground and offer kids frozen berries, spices and water, or ice paint (i.e. ice and food coloring on a stick) to paint a sunset. Or, use chalk and water, shaving cream or cornstarch to create "stars" on a dark sheet. Enjoy a super sensory satisfying way to paint your pretend sky, then "camp out" under it! Read more here.
  • Go "Fishing"—Drop large blocks of ice into a bowl of water and offer scoops to “fish” them out. Or, freeze one end of a piece of twine into a large ice cube, then tie the other end to a stick. Voila! Your fishing pole is ready for action. Get more fishing play ideas here.
Child pretending to roast marshmallows

Step 4: Keep the play going!

Enjoy your campout, whether it's in the woods, the backyard or in the living room. Younger kiddos may not make it to see the summer stars, but you can revisit play activities your child enjoyed throughout the week and enjoy some of the special camping rituals like eating in your campsite, singing and building a fire all season long! 

Why this is Good for Kids

Camping is a super experience for the senses and a way to build a family culture around our connection to the outdoors. But, you don't have to start with deep woods backpacking—you can start small and get there whenever you and your kids are ready. Plus, no matter where or how "hard core" your camping turns out to be, you can get kids excited about camping by teeing up ways to play that have a camping theme. Whatever camping looks like for you, happy camping!

This activity was featured in Tinkergarten’s June 2023 Activity Calendar. Click to get our free activity calendar each month!

Tinkergarten Team
By: Tinkergarten

Created by experts and loved by kids, families and teachers, Tinkergarten gets kids learning through purposeful outdoor play. Tinkergarten is also part of the Highlights for Children family of organizations! Learn more at tinkergarten.com.