Camping with Small Children (And an Unexpected Link to The Elderly)

My memories of camping are of being forced to sleep in a tent on family holidays when my mates were staying at beach hotels in Mhlanga Rocks *, that year-round vacation destination extension of Durban. That wasn’t cool.

That me and my siblings didn’t enjoy going camping with an irritable parent should in itself say somethings to parents who dictate rather than guide their children’s paths through life. Taking into account their likes and dislikes, making holidays fun etcetera, which is exactly what my Dad didn’t do (my mom didn’t have much of a say).


Judging by the fact that I wasn’t even allowed to mow the lawn before I was 15, by which stage I obviously really didn’t want to, I doubt he would’ve allowed me to get involved in erecting the tent as a pre-schooler. Many parents will realize pre-schoolers love getting involved; for those who have somehow (inexplicably) missed their little ones’ seemingly obsessive desire to help, I suggest that you change your ways now.

By denying them the opportunity for helping out, you won’t just kill off their enthusiasm to be involved, you will ensure that when they’re older and you really need their help, as in building a wall, taking out the rubbish or cleaning the pool, they won’t want to help. And that will set up its own battlefield, so you have been warned, the way that scenario plays out is in your hands. The writer’s unfortunate expression in the below picture has nothing to do with the topic – me and friend Mark were contemplating our unprepareedness, the lack of chairs and a table among them. Such are the dangers of imprompto rustic getaways. The boys obviously didnt mind.


Camping is an easy way to involve the whole family (considering that mom wants to go). There’s nothing fussy about little kids, and likewise with setting up tents, crawling into a sleeping-bag with sandy feet, eating around a campfire and washing up. Beyond the excitement (for your child) and the positive practicalities, such as learning how to put up a tent and make and respect a fire, consider the positive effects of nature on the human psyche.

Of course, while fathers camping with the kids is almost a default scenario, the alternative reality is that not all parents enjoy it. Yes, a number of moms do, but my experience is that the older they get, the less chance they’re interested in communing with crawly things and carrying a toilet-roll in a backpack.

I went on to enjoy camping in my older years, as a 20-something by necessity, South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains and Swaziland, Malalotja Nature Reserve, coming to mind. And now it’s as if the word ‘camp’ is pitched in my subconscious, occasionally releasing scented aspects of the pleasant parts of the experience; the inside of the tent, the campfire, children’s giggles and even the early-morning scent of exotic pines.

After that it was over 20 years before I returned to the land of tent-pegs and fly-sheets at a beautiful campsite called Beaverlac ( in South Africa’s Cederberg mountains . Two dads with their three year-old sons, we forgot chairs and all sorts of stuff that would’ve made the experience more comfortable – for us. Nevertheless, I looked at it as a reminder, and anyway, the rock-pools were great.

John Walmsley and Fynn discussing the storm of last night.

John Walmsley and Fynn discussing the storm of last night.

And then the parenting split came, and it was three years before we got to camp again. The odious holiday parenting plan determined the we had just one night in which to camp. I’m his father, and I had made him a promise.

The one night ended up being on a lawn at a visiting school- friend’s father’s house, overlooking False Bay outside Simonstown, Cape Town. Jo is her name, and her Dad was John; a warm, slightly stiff English-born soul entering his 80s and battling cancer with the stiff-upper-lip countenance that becomes that generation of his countrymen. Yet when Jo suggested to him that we would like to camp on their patch of lawn, John (and his always welcoming wife Sue), despite the discomfort of almost daily ilness-related tests, probes and pain, insisted that we do.

And for the next two years of his life, even when Jo was back home in Colorado, the invitation for us to visit was there. John was in that typically English fashion a bit awkward with my son, but clealry fond of him, and I still wonder if the little man’s presence was a balm of sorts. I had noticed it with my Dad, who still remembered his grandson’s name while wondering around the garden in his wellington boots, irrespective of how far the Alzheimers had progressed. I think he had enjoyed their short time together.

My son set about mowing the lawn after we arrived for that anticipated night, after deciding exactly where we would pitch the tent. While we were sleeping, the relatively unthinkable and utterly unseasonal then happened. The ominous, dark sky rattled and rolled and eventually hurled thudding, bulleting drops of rain down on our tent. My son was asleep.

John Walmsley and Fynn discussing the storm of last night. Good view from the Jo's folk's garden, Murdoch Valley, outside Simonstown. IMG_5866 IMG_5868

Bullets of water thudded onto the thirsty grass patch on which we were pitched, and while the overflowing gutter downpipe churned like the Zambezi river’s rapid #22, I was pleased  we had put the fly-sheet on. From inside our acrylic dome not two metres from the visitors’ room downstairs, I devised half-awake escape plans that, in the event of the tent-roof giving in, involved slinging my sleeping 20kg treasure over my back only to find the door locked.

Then I woke up. We were dry. The sky above the wet, morning wet-scented grass was a clear blue, and our view over False Bay just down below was as impressive as it had been the day before, and all was good. It had been a night to remember, and I think I just may have rediscvered my appetite for tent-pegs and that tell-tale sound of the zip.

* pr. ‘umshlanga’ by most white South Africans of European descent. The combined ‘hl’ can be challenging for the less linguistcally-inclined.

Six & The Shoelace

I never quite attached the importance to shoelaces that I did last year, the sixth time the earth has circled the earth since my son was born. We had sat on his floor a bunch of times, him fumbling with those laces, me silently willing him to get it right while offering mild encouragement.

Being aware that he has limited patience for fiddly things, akin to my own, I understood the frustration that I was witnessing.

I remember when collecting him from school on ‘my day’, that a classmate was sitting on the brick floor outside the classroom, tying his laces. Around him, children grappling with bags half their size stumbled towards their waiting mothers*, but the boy remained resolute, focused, and finally stood with a look of triumph.

My first thought was a vaguely competitive ‘hey, we have to practise’. That was something of a knee-jerk, primitive response, but looking back, I hadn’t been here before. With each new developmental day comes a new experience, but I knew this was a landmark event, along with learning to ride a bike and catching his first frog.

Allied to this sense of understanding and appreciation, was a realisation that at his mom’s house he didn’t have lace-ups, only those shoes with velcro straps. Which meant no opportunity to practice.

Yes, they’re much easier to put on and take off, but learning this skill is obviously a non-negotiable that will equip him in his battle with the drawstring in his shorts, and I suppose later on with knotting the rope in the tree he wants to swing from, like the one outside our home.

Luckily this was happening a few months ago, as winter got going and footwear – as opposed to slip-slops – were a necessity. It would’ve been harder now, with summer at last here, as I support he and his little sister going barefoot as often as possible and when appropriate.

But that’s all history now, he’s pretty much got it mastered. Check this out from a few months back:

Yes, he did start with the laces the wrong way around, but here’s a tip (if it’s needed): it’s important to let our children make mistakes, to give them the chance to work them out themselves. The sense of achievement visible on his face when he got it right was a highlight of my year, almost up there with learning to ride his bike.

I will soon be sharing that experience, plus the process of learning to read with this excellent reader I came across. In the meantime when I get my boy this weekend after ten days apart, we’ll fit in a shoelace refresher, working on that coordination needed to tighten those laces. Further down the line, when he turns seven in February, we’ll have a separate bunch of challenges on our hands.

If you have your own tales of success, failures and lessons learnt, please share with me, and in so doing help us all learn from each other.

Parentally, Happily and Paternally Yours 🙂

* not too many dads seem to do the pick-ups at our school. Luckily I work for myself, and with minimal time to see him I treasure the opportunity to learn about what’s going on in his world, even if it’s just a lift, so he knows his dad is present.

PS – you might also enjoy this link.