THE BLOG
07/30/2015 02:00 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

Family Camping: A Breath of Fresh Air for Kids

Getty Images

It's late afternoon. I'm writing this sitting in a lawn chair in front of a campfire, part of a tidy arrangement of tents and RVs. Above me is a canopy of trees. "Next door," a mother and her small child are curled up in a chaise reading together. The gravel road in front of me is crunching with little kids on bikes, whooping and ringing bells on their handlebars. Families are walking back from the lake, still wet, smiling and laughing.

This is our favorite state park -- great for family camping. It's no utopia, but it's a place where families relax and engage.

Family camping is enjoying a resurgence. That's great news, and here's why:

A recent wave of research suggests that parents need to be thoughtful about three cultural changes that are affecting our children: the amount of time kids spend in front of screens (perhaps more than we all realized), the amount of physical activity kids get (too little), and the amount of unstructured time offered them (not much). Family camping, I realize as I talk to and observe families here, helps mitigate all three of these concerning trends.

For starters, camping makes it easy to go off the grid. I don't know a parent who doesn't worry at least a little about how much time their kids spend with screens. Just when we'd become more comfortable handing kids tablets and smartphones, a recent survey reports that we may be underestimating how much time our kids spend on these devices -- and that too much screen time could be harming their physical health.

If you have a kid who has a hard time putting down his or her device, camping may make it easier. The birdsong, the wind whispering in the trees, and a beckoning mossy path all work together to reset our inner metronomes. We slow down and discover that, in this moment, at this place at least, the virtual world holds less appeal than the real one.

Even parents seem to unplug at the campsite. Rather than compulsively checking email and Facebook, parents seem to be more present, talking and playing with their kids. In the 2014 Highlights State of the Kid survey, 62 percent of kids 6-12 said that they felt their parents were often distracted when they wanted to talk to them. The number one distraction? Cell phones.

Camping reveals the wonder of nature. The national conversation about "nature deficit disorder," spawned by the influential, best-selling book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, is troubling. But it's not always easy to find ways to connect kids to the natural world, particularly if you work long hours, live in an urban area, or are simply weary of combating the lure of video games and television. Direct exposure to nature, however, is essential to healthy child development, to our kids' physical and emotional health -- and ours too. Another plus: outdoor activities tend to be active -- helping to balance out the sedentary, video game-playing and TV-watching that are sometimes consumed in excess over the summer and can even lead to too much weight gain.

Camping gives kids rare and important free time. Parents leave the schedules at home, and kids have a voice in what they want to do. Hit the playground or the lake? Go fishing? Play wiffle ball? Take a bike ride or hike with the family? Almost every option amounts to good, unstructured fun. Experts say that unstructured play, especially when it's kid-directed, is great for kids. It builds confidence, stimulates creativity, and helps them discover new interests.

Of course, there are other ways to moderate screen time and move the kids outside for Vitamin D and physical activity. But as I hear the delighted shrieks of children having fun, I know that camping is one very good way. And let's not forget the after-dark camping ritual. At night, campers gather around the glow of the campfire -- rather than the glow of a TV screen -- to talk and laugh together. And, okay, maybe to have a s'more or two.

I'm off to find the marshmallows.