When I became a grandparent almost 12 years ago I started daydreaming about the idea of having an annual “grandma camp.” My thought was I’d invite the grandchildren to our home for a few days in the summer and spend time doing crafts, learning together and just having fun. (Think “VBS for cousins” with a few sleepovers thrown in.) Well, when the eldest grandchild, Annabel, turned six in 2011, my dream became a reality.
To my surprise—and the kids’ delight—I’ve kept up the tradition and this year I’ll be holding our sixth annual “Camp Noni” (the grandkids call me Noni)! Since our first year, the number of campers has grown from two to six and we already have so many great memories to share!
As I was thinking through this tradition, I realized you don’t have to be a grandparent to do something like this. Anybody can have a backyard camp for their own kids (and maybe invite their cousins or good friends). Sending the kids to summer camp is great, but we all know it’s not necessarily realistic for every family. If you’re a really fast planner, you could do it this year (haha), but I’m guessing you’re already in back-to-school mode. Better yet, you might want to spend the next several months coming up with some great ideas! Sometimes just having something to look forward to makes a seemingly endless winter easier to tolerate.
If you like the idea but don’t know where to begin, this has been my approach:
1. Choose a theme. Think about something you and your kids have been talking about lately, or some life lesson you'd like to pass on. Once you come up with a theme, Pinterest almost does the rest of the work for you! (Well, not really, but it’s a huge help in terms of finding corresponding books, crafts, and even Bible stories if something doesn’t immediately come to mind.) For example, this year my theme is “Growing Up.” In past years, I’ve used topics such as Creation, Gratitude, and “Jesus is the Light.”
2. Build on the theme as a framework. With the help of the Internet and a little imagination, I have found that there are TOO MANY ideas!
a. Visit your library ahead of time and find books that correspond with your theme. I was able to find tons of great choices with simple word searches in the online library catalog, such as growing up, childhood development, what I want to be when I grow up, plant and animal growth, etc
b. Search for songs that you can learn or sing together. I have a gifted son-in-law who even wrote a theme song for our camp! He leads us all in a campfire sing-along on the first and/or last nights of camp. This is great fun and the parents and younger siblings also join in for songs and s’mores. In addition to that, I usually find a few songs that go along with the year’s theme and create a playlist we can listen to while we’re doing crafts or riding in the car.
c. Try to come up with a Bible story or verse you can focus on throughout your time together. For example, this year I’m using Luke 2:52 as our theme verse: And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. I’ll also be reading the Parable of the Sower (found in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8) which lends itself to a discussion not only about the needs of a plant, but an important spiritual principle for the older kids as well! I even found some great YouTube videos that explain the parable in a way that is simple and engaging even for the younger ones.
d. Plan crafts that tie in with your theme that are age appropriate. Again, this was super easy with Pinterest. We’re going to be growing seeds in a baggie and doing some other plant-related crafts this year. I’ve also asked each of the parents to provide several pictures of themselves when they were young. I will also print pictures of each grandchild and let them create their own collage/poster so they can see the resemblance and what their parents looked like when they were young.
e. If the kids are old enough, you can plan a field trip or two. This can get pretty expensive and you definitely want to be careful about setting precedence if you plan to make this an annual tradition, so keep it to a minimum. This year, we plan to visit a dairy farm and see some baby animals. We’ll also go to the beach one day and play some miniature golf. It’s a good idea to take along another adult depending on the number of kids. As my group has grown over the years, I’ve had to scale back on the excursions. Flexibility is the key as we adjust to number of campers, ages and budgetary considerations!
f. Even food can fit in with the theme if you want! We’ll be enjoying some Flower Pot desserts this year, complete with Oreo “dirt” and gummy worms!
3. Mix in plenty of fun. This is a wonderful time for the cousins to get together, but even if it’s just your own family, be sure to do things you wouldn’t normally do. The memories they are building together will last a lifetime and what is summer about if not being relaxed and doing things you wouldn’t do during the school year? Like sleeping in a tent (even if it’s just set up in the family room because the little ones are either too scared or have to go potty in the middle of the night!) The first year of camp we had a tent in our backyard with great plans for sleeping outside with our six- and four-year-old grands, but in the morning the only people still outside were my husband and 15-year-old son! So be prepared to go with the flow and just enjoy your times together!