Camping 101: a Brilliant Program from Camptown for Rookie Campers

Camping Gothic.

Earlier this week I wrote about how we checked yet another adventure off the list of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). This time around it was “Sleep in the Wild.”

Some of you may scoff at the idea that of all the things we do, such as ziplining, climbing trees, or letting our tween go to the store by herself, we’d find camping to be the riskiest things we’ve tried yet. But if you’ve never camped before, and especially if you’ve never camped with kids, it can seem both daunting and decidedly risky. What to pack? What gear is essential and what gear is silly? What do we eat? How do we cook it? What do you do with a tent once you unpack it?

Mike and I did not grow up in camping families and it was never something we felt called to try as adults before we had kids. The allure of camping is so appealing to children, though, and with each passing summer the kids lobbied passionately to include a camping trip in our summer plans. It wasn’t that Mike and I didn’t want to, we just didn’t know where to start. I’m sure there are a lot of you who feel like we did – wanting to try camping on for size, but not wanting to go it alone and risk the experience being an epic failure. Or maybe you kind of figure it out on your own, but decide camping just isn’t for you, the pile of gear you invested in for one weekend of camping now a source of frustration instead of fun.

Earlier this summer the answer to our camping conundrum came in the form of an email from a local organization called Camptown. Camptown is a not-for-profit that works with youth in central Indiana. Their mission is to challenge, mentor and teach youth through outdoor adventure and nature programs. While the majority of their programs cater to at-risk youth, they also offer programs that encourage youth and families to explore and become comfortable in the great outdoors.

Through the email, I learned about one such program: Camping for Rookies. The idea behind Camping for Rookies is to give families who want to try camping a chance to do so without having to worry about the gear, how to start a fire, how to pitch a tent … all the details that keep families from trying camping in the first place. Camptown collaborates with Indiana State Parks and Reservoirs to reserve campsites and provide families with everything they need for a weekend of camping.

Camping for Rookies via The Risky Kids

For a completely reasonable cost of $50, we were provided with tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and 3 meals. To ensure that the experience is as encouraging and fun as possible, volunteers are available the entire weekend, helping you set up camp, showing you how to start, maintain, and cook over a fire, and hosting programs and hikes. All we had to bring were our clothes, some bug spray, and an open mind.  We spent Eli’s birthday weekend at Paynetown State Recreation Area, on the shores of beautiful Lake Monroe.

Family Camping at Lake Monroe

We swam, we hiked, we feasted on s’mores, and we learned that we are, indeed, a camping family.

Camping 101 via The Risky Kids

Camping 101 via The Risky Kids

I can’t think of a better way to set families up for success … and some amazing memories. We knew we’d met kindred souls when the volunteers busted out the slackline! We had a blast and we now have the confidence to know that we can invest in some gear and plan our own great camping adventures.

Camping 101 via The Risky Kids

If you live in Indiana, you can take advantage of this wonderful program, too! Camptown and Indiana State Parks and Reservoirs have two more Camping for Rookies programs coming up at various locations this year:

They are also offering a Day Hike at Shades State Park on November 16.  Spaces are filling up, so I encourage you to call Camptown at 317-471-8277 and make your reservation soon.  I have no affiliation with Camptown and wasn’t asked to post on their behalf – we just had an amazing experience that I want to share with as many people as possible!

In the near future I will share a few other resources that I think are invaluable to families who are new to camping but want to learn how to make it part of their family’s tradition.  If you know of any other similar programs where you live, or have some great camping resources to share with rookie campers, please let us know in the comments!


Why Sleepaway Camp is an Essential Childhood Experience

Sleepaway camp: an essential childhood experience

Later today I will pick up Elena from Girl Scout Camp.  This is her second, and final, week at camp this summer.

For 11 days and 10 nights we had absolutely no contact with her.  We could send bunk notes (essentially email), but she couldn’t email back.  I sent her with enough stationary and stamps for a trip to Europe, but she’s been too busy having fun to send home more than one postcard.

My husband and I didn’t grow up going to sleepaway camps.  I tried sleep away camp lite once and hated it.  It was a day camp that culminated in sleeping outside on the last evening.  I was 5 miles and only away from home for 24 hours, but don’t think I didn’t try every trick in the book to get my mom to pick me up before the day was over.  Elena, on the other hand, really enjoys camp.  Every year we offer her the chance to buddy up and choose a week with friends.  She brushes us off and instead chooses her weeks based on the theme.  This year it was Harry Potter one week and the Hunger Games (Kamp Katniss) the next.  Every time she went without knowing a soul.

Why do we think it’s important for her to go away to camp, when neither of us have good memories to draw upon?  For so many reasons that I think are essential to growing up.  It’s often a child’s first experience of pulling away.  I want her to learn how to be away from us, and to have fun while doing it.  I want her to start building that treasure chest of memories that don’t include us.  I want her to have that sense of pride of doing something on your own.  I want her to be able to survive for stretches of days without apps and texting and TV and be okay without it.

She comes homes with the smelliest laundry and the best stories.  The 90-minute ride home is full of chatter about all the amazing things they did during the week.  Any parent of a tween or teen would tell you they would gladly pay whatever the camp fee is just to get a kid that wants to talk to you uninterrupted for 90 minutes.

I hope the summer camp turns into a camp counselor.  I hope the camp counselor turns into an eager college student.  I hope the eager college student turns into a world traveler.  And I hope she is never too homesick and she sends more postcards.

Do you send your kids to sleepaway camp? How did you know they were old enough to go? If you went as a kid, what were your favorite memories?


Sticks & Stitches: When Accidents Happen

I just had to go and tempt fate.

Last week I wrote about why I let my kids try risky things, about how if they do get it hurt, it’s always doing normal kid stuff … like walking.

 “I’m probably pressing my luck here, but he’s never been injured beyond a minor scratch or bruise from climbing, riding his bike on dirt trails, jumping ramps or skateboarding.”

Total rookie move … because guess where we ended up days later?  In the Emergency Room.

Eli was playing with another kid and walked behind him as he was swinging a rather hefty stick.  It caught him right in the mouth.  He needed a couple of stitches on his lip and a few more on the inside of his mouth.

The kid is such a trooper.  He cried when it happened, of course.  It was scary – I’m sure it hurt like hell and there was a lot of blood.  But once we got him calmed down and made our way to the hospital, he never cried once.  He barely flinched when they gave him the numbing shots.  Not a peep when the doctor stitched him up, other than saying “Ow” a couple of times.   I want to cry just thinking about it.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic, as I know that far more terrible things happen to children.  Stitches and broken arms are a rite of passage for many, many kids.  But it is the most serious injury either of my kids have ever experienced.  And as the writer of a blog that is centered around letting kids play freely, while knowing and accepting the inherent risks such play presents, I feel like I can’t write authenticly if I don’t let you know that the experience definitely rattled me.

I got a clear glimpse as to why a parent would choose to say “no” instead of “yes.”  I have every urge to watch Eli like a hawk from now on.  I want to cover him in bubble wrap.  I want to protect him from ever having to experience any kind of pain again.  His wound is on the outside and visible.  My wound – that I didn’t do my job as a parent and keep him safe – is open and festering just below the surface.  I know it sounds a little ridiculous, but for the first time I understand the emotions and fear that can very easily turn a parent into one that chooses to helicopter over their children.

The truth is, it could’ve happened any time.  Why do we love our neighborhood so much?  Because of the trees and the kids.  Trees make sticks and kids are going to play with them (though we didn’t let the opportunity pass to talk about playing with sticks safely).  It could’ve happened on one of their many bike races they hold in the cul-de-sac.  It could’ve happened during one of their many impromptu games of street hockey or kickball.  Childhood is chock full of near misses and terrible things that could have happened.  And sometimes accidents do happen.  But in between those near and not-so-near misses is the kind of fun that childhood memories are made of.

While I will continue to be passionate about play, I also recognize that we will need a period of healing, both physically and mentally.  I am going to hover a bit, until both of us feel better.  I’m realizing that it’s okay, and that perhaps instead of immediately judging those parents who are a little more hesitant than the rest of us, we could find out why.   What’s happened to their kids in the past, or to them as children?  What are they afraid of?

I’m reminded of the weeks after I had my knee surgery.  I’d never been injured, never had surgery, and I was scared.  Scared to put weight on it for the first time.  Scared to go down the stairs.  Scared to go back to work.  Scared to exercise.  Finally my physical therapist told me that I could choose to spend the rest of my life treating it gingerly and it would probably never be the same again.  Or I could choose to work it – strengthen the muscles, do the rehab, build it back up to where it was before – and it would be just as good or even better than it was before surgery.  It was a leap of faith, but I chose the latter.  A year and a half later I don’t even think about my knee most days.  I exercise, I move heavy pallets at work, I run around with my kids and I’m never anxious about it.  But it took a lot of time and many, many baby steps to get there.

It will be like that with Eli, I think.  We are both shell-shocked and a little scared.  It will take time to move past the fear of accidents that are lurking around every childhood corner.  I can spend the rest of my days as a parent being afraid of what’s around the corner, or I can choose to walk past those fears and enjoy the good things around the corner.  You know us well by know, and know that we’ll choose the latter.

We’ll just need some time to build up our speed again.



Life is Full of Bumps & Bruises: Why I Let My Kids Try Risky Things

Bike Tricks - The Risky Kids

Before the door even opened, I could sense it was bad.  I heard the wails, intensifying with every step.  I found Eli, sobbing, with blood dripping from his chin.  It was a nasty cut, one that had Mike and I wondering if he might need stitches.  He didn’t, thank goodness, but he’ll have a war wound for quite some time.  What he won’t have is a great tale to go along with his battle scar.  How did he get hurt?  He tripped.  On his own feet.  Walking on our sidewalk.

In the last year Eli has gotten his fingers slammed in a door twice and fallen off the couch arm while he was just lying on it.  Each incident resulted in a nasty injury – bloody, swollen fingers, and what we think to be a mild concussion from the fall off the couch.

Even before this, Eli was a scarred kid.  He has a scar between his eyes from a gash he received climbing out of the car.  The nasty one under his chin?  He slipped in the tub as a toddler.  The jagged line just under his lip, where he nearly bit all the way through?  A fall off of his bed.  His broken arm?  The result of a sibling tussle over Halloween decorations.

Not a single injury on that kid has ever been caused by the activities we regularly let him participate in that others deem “risky.”  I’m probably pressing my luck here, but he’s never been injured beyond a minor scratch or bruise from climbing, riding his bike on dirt trails, jumping ramps or skateboarding.

Bumps & Bruises - The Risky Kids

No one would ever dream of telling us we need to remove all our doors from their hinges, take out the furniture, avoid the bath tub or keep our kids out of cars.  But we hear it all the time about not letting our kids do things like skateboard, climb a tree or ride to the park by themselves.

I find it mind-boggling that the perceived risks kids face while participating in active or natural play can be blown out of proportion to make us feel as if a terrible injury is imminent, while the risks kids face going about their every day activities are ignored.  More kids are injured in car accidents or household accidents than are injured on playgrounds.  Child abductions are down and kids are much more likely to be sexually abused by a trusted adult than a stranger.  Instead, parents who chose to slowly let out the reins and give their kids the same freedoms we enjoyed as kids are made to feel as if we’ve left our children blindfolded in the middle of the interstate.

I’ve watched my kids as they face things that involve actual risk.  I’ve seen them size up a tree or a boulder before they’ve climbed it.  I’ve seen them get so far and then get down, because they know their limitations.  They know when to push their boundaries and they know when to back down because we’ve slowly given them those opportunities to learn on their own.

Eli would never dream of riding his skateboard down a 40 foot ramp because he’s tried the smallest ramp at the skatepark and knows he hasn’t mastered it yet.  It is our own dance of perceived risk vs reward, yet our kids have learned the sweetness of those rewards because they’ve worked hard to get there.

Taking risks - The Risky Kids

I’ve watched other kids whose parents helicopter.  I’ve seem them look around anxiously on the playground, scared to go down the slide because of what might happen.  I’ve also seem them climb on top of the slide and put themselves in a real position of danger, because they’re bored or they’ve never had the chance to stretch the muscles that tell them whether they’re capable or not.

It’s why I do what I do, why I parent the way I parent.  I want my kids to learn that without taking the risk, there is no chance for reward.  I want them to understand the real dangers associated with doing risky things, because they’ve been allowed to try things they’re developmentally ready for.  I do not want them to be scared of the world around them by making them feel like everything, whether it’s actually dangerous or just perceived to be so, is to be feared.

And hey … if they’re going to get hurt just walking on the sidewalk or sitting on the couch?  Well then, what do we have to lose by letting them climb a tree?


Mammoth Cave National Park: Our First Family National Park Experience

For years, driving back and forth between our bases of Nashville, Tennessee and Indianapolis, Indiana, we’ve passed Mammoth Cave National Park.  We never stopped, though.  Either the kids were too little to appreciate or enjoy the cave or we were pressed for time, trying to get from Point A to Point B.  This summer, we planned a trip to Nashville and found ourselves with plenty of time to get there and back.  Finally, a stop at Mammoth Cave was in order.

Our visit was fantastic.  The drive into the park is beautiful.  I’ll admit, I got a little hitch in my throat when we came to the entrance and saw the sign for Mammoth Cave.  I have many fond memories of posing for just such photos as a child.

Mammoth Cave National Park with kids

We took the Historic Entrance Tour, which was roughly 2 hours and described as a difficulty level of moderate.  Eli, who is almost 6, did just fine.  He really enjoyed it, but I would say a tour of this length and difficulty is probably the max you would want to attempt with the 6 and under crowd.  There are many tours to choose from, ranging from short and easy to long and strenuous.  We want to try them all!  Advanced reservations are not required, but they are recommended.  We reserved our tour the day before, and already several other tours we were interested in were sold out.

Obviously, it is difficult to take good photos 250 feet underground, but Elena snapped a few in the area of the cave known as Frozen Niagara.  It was so cool, even as an adult, to see formations you’ve only read about or seen in pictures.

Mammoth Cave National Park Historic Entrance Tour with kids

Frozen Niagara - Mammoth Cave National Park

It certainly made an impact on the kids.  Inside the Visitor’s Center Gift Shop, you can purchase a Passport To Your National Parks.  It’s a perfect souveneir (only $8.95).  The Passport is a guide to all of our nation’s National Parks, organized by region.  Along with a full-size map of the National Park System, each region has a map, text, photos, and a listing of all the parks in that region.  Just like a real passport, there is space within each region to get your Passport canceled.  Most National Parks have stations at the visitor center where you can stamp your Passport with the name of the park you visited as well as the date.  The kids were so psyched to to get their Passports canceled and are already making plans to visit every National Park in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky … this summer.  Next summer, according to them, we’ll hit the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the giant sequoias.  I’m game!

National Parks Passport - great souvenir for kids

I can’t believe it took us this long to begin exploring our great National Parks system with our kids.  Have you made these national treasures a part of your family’s vacations already?  If so, what are your favorites?


Getting Through Bare Patches of Play


To say the last two months have been difficult for our family would be an understatement.  Are you familiar with the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale?  We scored with moderate to high levels of stress.  We’ve been on vacation, gone through the holidays, put our home up for sale, and buried my father-in-law.  As I write this we are in the midst of a double move – first to temporary housing and then to a new home.

I find it hard enough to keep the kids engaged in screen-free play and risky fun during the cold winter months, but adding all these additional changes and stresses on top of the winter doldrums has meant we are in a MAJOR RISKY RUT.

I can’t tell you the last time we played outside.  I can’t remember the last time we did something all together as a family.  Our days seem to be a blur of traveling, packing, errands, and in the midst of all of it the kids are entertaining themselves with screen time. Loads and loads of screen time.

I know that it’s a rut, and I know that as sure as the flowers will bloom and the trees will bud, we’ll emerge from this tumultuous season with a renewed desire to simply PLAY.  However I also want to remain honest with you.  It can be so easy to read magazines, blogs and Pinterest and feel inadequate.  In my mind the families I admire are living the life I want to lead every minute of every day.  But that simply isn’t true.  Sometimes we just have to get through the day.

This blog is both a way to inspire you and a way to hold myself accountable to living a spirited, playful life.  It’s also real life, though, and sometimes it gets in the way.  So if you’re ever reading our posts and thinking that you can’t possibly live up to our standards (even as low as they are!), rest assured that we are just as human as you.  Be inspired, but cut yourself some slack.

For those of you who’ve been down this path before, perhaps you can inspire us now.  How do you manage to get through life’s rougher patches and still find ways to play?  This Risky Family (and I’m sure a few others) would love to know.



Roger’s Rules of Christmas Order

We had a Risky Family Meeting Friday morning. My husband, Roger,  printed up these rules and reviewed them with the kids. Then they signed the document and went to school to eat sugar and party down while I enjoyed the last three and a half hours of freedom.

I have to admit, these rules are pretty good. My favorite line is the one about our giant playroom otherwise known as “OUTSIDE.” Go outside and play needs to return to our daily vocabulary. Yes, it’s cold outside, strangers live there, there are cars and wild animals … but there’s also fresh air, sunshine and so much potential for fun. We all know it: your body and mind will be renewed if you just go outside and play.


The Token System

Still, there are times we’ll be inside and technology will be calling.  We rationed screen time a few months ago and it has changed our lives. I’ve said this before but EVERYONE is happier. It’s changed everything. They get an hour and a half everyday of tech time just for sticking to the rules. They have the option of losing or earning time. Tokens not used can be exchanged at the end of the day for a quarter.

I’m NOT a big fan of the phrase family time or quality time.  Roger works from home, I’m a stay at home mom and my kids are always around. Every minute of my life is family time. If you spend enough time with your kids, there will naturally be quality time and you don’t have to stress about fitting it into your schedule. Our house has a tendency to turn into a daycare center at times and through the Christmas Break Rules I think Roger was giving me an excuse to say if I didn’t give birth to you, GET OUT.

I also love the part about Mom and Dad spending time together. Kids need to understand that while they really are the center of the universe, it just won’t spin unless Mom and Dad send some time together. It also gave me the opportunity to define emergency.  Emergencies are limited to: fire, bones sticking out, massive amounts of blood, any amount of vomit and flooding.

The rest of the rules are pretty self explanatory. Christmas break is 18 days long. Even Risky Kids need rules sometimes.

What are you doing to make your Christmas break flow smoothly? Let us know.


Risky Places We Love: Go Ape

The most awesome face I've ever made, courtesy of the @GoApe zip line.

You know the signs of a perfect risky adventure?  When you’re cheeks hurt from laughing, your muscles ache from working, and you’re still picking mulch out of your pants days later.

Go Ape, Indianapolis

Welcome to Go Ape Treetop Adventures, my favorite risky place in Indianapolis.  Go Ape is a playground for big kids and adults.  Set in a lush forest near Eagle Creek Reservoir, Go Ape is a series of treetop obstacle courses connected by ziplines.  Five awesome ziplines, to be exact.

The original plan was for Elena and I to have a mom-daughter risky date.  I thought I had read the fine print well, but not well enough.  I knew Elena needed to be 10, I didn’t realize there was a height requirement as well (4′ 7″).  Unfortunately Elena isn’t quite there yet, so once again her zipline dreams were dashed (I’m looking at you, Super Bowl 46).  Instead, Mike and I decided to make it a date.

Go Ape, Indianapolis

We paid a visit on a gorgeous summer morning, but Go Ape is open virtually year round.  Fall in Indianapolis would be an amazing time to go!  It was my first experience ziplining, and I was nervous.  No need to worry, though.  The instructors are kind, thorough and very encouraging.  One trip down the bunny zipline and I was hooked, literally and figuratively.

Mike and I spent nearly 2 hours together – climbing, balancing, crawling, zipping, and more importantly, having an absolute blast.  I seriously can’t remember the last time the two of us had that much fun together.

Go Ape, Indianapolis

Go Ape would be an awesome family activity for those of you with older kids who are struggling to find ways to connect with kids that have outgrown playgrounds and children’s museums.  Or do like Mike and I did – leave the kids at home and have your own risky fun for a change!

Still not convinced? Let’s see if my masterful video changes your mind. Note: a few of the clips are sideways (sorry) and I may or may not refer to my cooter (again, sorry). Don’t say you weren’t warned. 

Many thanks to Go Ape for providing Mike and I with the coolest date we’ve had in years.  Go Ape is located within Eagle Creek Park on the northwest side of Indianapolis.  They also have locations in Rockville, MD and Williamsburg, VA.


The Benefits of Risk in Children’s Play

Are you familiar with KaBOOM?  If you’ve heard of this fabulous non-profit, it’s most likely in conjunction with their mission to build playspaces in areas that need them.  Perhaps you’ve even participated in a KaBOOM! Community Build.  That in and of itself is awesome, but KaBOOM! is about so much more.  Their ultimate mission is saving play for America’s children.

Last year our family worked with KaBOOM! for their Park-a-Day Challenge.  The kids and I spent most of the summer visiting area playgrounds and making sure they were accounted for and documented properly on KaBOOM!’s Map of Play – an excellent resource to find playspaces wherever you go.

A few weeks ago I was asked if I had any photos or videos I could share with them that showed our kids playing in ways that might be considered risky.  Of course I did, and the result is that you might recognize a few faces in the video I’m about to share.

The video is entitled “The Benefits of Risk in Children’s Play.”  Produced by KaBOOM! and The Alliance for Childhood, the video features Tim Gill  (former director of Play England and author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society), Darell Hammond (Founder and CEO of KaBOOM!), Dr. Elizabeth Large (Pediatrician), and Janice O’Donnell (Director of the Providence Children’s Museum).

Risk teaches children many invaluable lessons, yet in today’s American culture we are conditioned to protect our children from risk and encouraged to steer our children away from any situation where they might encourage risk.  As the participants in the video mention, we have confused managing risk with reducing risk entirely in our children’s lives.

There are so many topics within this video that I would love to delve into further, and definitely will address in the weeks to come.  For now, however, I’d just love for you to check out the video and let me know what you think.  And definitely check out the kids (big and small!) hammering nails, jumping bike ramps, and conquering the slackline!

If you feel as strongly as we do that our children must be allowed and encourage to take risks in order to thrive and grow, please share this video on your blog, website, Facebook page or Twitter.


Slackline Is Not A Crime, But It Is Crazy Fun

Gibbon slackline

If you’re going to be a risky parent, it’s good to find risky friends! No-holds-barred play loves company. We had the best kind of company over Spring Break, my good friend Lisa. She doesn’t let anything hold her back – not even knee surgery can stop her! She might not be able to run anymore, but that doesn’t mean she can’t kayak. Or skateboard. Or even better: master the slackline.

Lisa came to visit with her son, Thomas, and they brought the coolest risky gadget ever: a Gibbon slackline. She had it set up between two trees in a jiffy and the kids (big and little!) were all over it.

Gibbon slackline

Gibbon slackline

Gibbon slackline

Gibbon slackline

It’s not easy, but the best things in life take some practice. The kids spent hours playing on it, and my kids were so sad to see it (and our company) go. More than just a fun way to spend an afternoon, the slackline promotes balance and coordination, builds self-confidence, encourages perseverance, and most importantly, it’s crazy fun.

Think the fun is over once you master getting from one side to the other without falling? Take a look at this:

As soon as I get that flip down, I’ll let you know.

Learn more about Gibbon slacklines here.