School’s out. What to do with the kids that won’t bankrupt the family? Luckily, the glories of British Columbia’s diverse and beautiful landscapes and temperate summer weather offer a host of affordable camping adventures that can be tailored to almost any budget.

Camping is an easy, safe way to get kids outdoors where they can learn something of the world around them and have an opportunity for the kind of free play that stimulates imaginations. Child psychologists have long advocated the value of unstructured play where kids can take risks without the requirement that they achieve some goal set by adults or the rules of organized sport.

What better place than a beach, for example, where children can collect shells, dig holes, build sand castles, splash in shallow pools or construct forts from driftwood?

Getting outdoors is more than an inexpensive relief valve for parents; it contributes to kids’ tool kits for understanding the world around them, creating their own context within it, finding leadership roles for themselves, reducing stress and spontaneously learning to solve problems cooperatively. Research shows that kids who feel confident outdoors are most likely to become competent adults with both healthy lifestyles and the ability to empathize with others.

So here’s a small sampling of the many easily accessible kid-friendly Island campgrounds, within a half-day’s drive. There are day-use facilities at these campgrounds, too, so daytrips are equally feasible.

The following list includes provincial parks only, although there are plenty of private facilities that are equally kid-friendly. You can survey the private facilities on offer at travel-british-columbia.com and if you want to adventure farther afield than Vancouver Island, you can look up parks and make reservations at gocampingbc.com for every region of the province.

French Beach
The beach here is almost two kilometres long. Views are spectacular across Juan de Fuca Strait to the Olympic Mountains and seals, sea lions and whales visit the waters. If a sea is running, you can take a quick trip to Jordan River or walk in to Sombrio Beach and watch the surfers. There’s hiking on Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. Tide pools at Botanical Beach offer endless exploring—just be prepared for rain.

Goldstream
Trees that were already old when Christopher Columbus was born tower along this little river where it tumbles through a deep canyon to an estuary that’s still in its natural state and home to eagles, ospreys, ravens and other birds. There’s a nature centre in the park which features talks by everyone from guest astronomers to bug experts, fun and games nights for kids in the amphitheatre, a spectacular waterfall that that cascades almost 50 metres down a cliff face and the chance to spot rare amphibians like the red-legged frog.

Gordon Bay
On Cowichan Lake, northwest of Duncan, this campground is ideal for kids. The sandy beach is great for lounging on a sunny afternoon and the water is almost always warm enough—the valley has the highest average temperature in Canada—for family swimming. There are walking and hiking trails through old growth forest and lots of birds to watch, including the raucous blue Stellar’s jay and plenty of waterfowl. For teens there’s windsurfing, kayaking and waterskiing. Fishing is good in the fall. And a short drive away in Duncan is the kid-friendly B.C. Forest Discovery Centre.

Newcastle Island
Miners once brought their families here for an outing away from the industrial grime when Nanaimo was a coal mining centre. Today you can catch a ferry for the 10-minute trip across the harbour. It’s an easy walk around the island with its sandstone beaches and sandy coves where kids can play. Lawns roll away to rustling shade trees and you can find an ice cream cone at the 1930’s dance pavilion. Campsites are limited here, though, so reserve early. Sidetrips include Petroglyph Park and its ancient stone carvings, an old coal mine at Morden Colliery Historic Site, the cemetery where kids can learn about Nanaimo’s mine disasters from the old tombstones, the Bastion fur trade fort and the Nanaimo Sports Hall of Fame which is not far from the ferry landing.

Rathtrevor Beach
This is a mid-Island paradise for kids of almost any age. At low tide, almost a kilometre of sandy beach is exposed leaving shallow pools in which flatfish dart, crabs scuttle, clams squirt and sand dollars are scattered everywhere. The tide rolls back in over sand flats that have been baking in the sun all day and the water warms up to temperatures that are ideal for paddling.

Miracle Beach
Midway between Courtenay and Campbell River, this is another sandy paradise for kids that features a playground, hot showers and a big family picnic area by the shore. A bit farther north is the Oyster River with estuary trails that lead to another beach, this one wild and undomesticated, with sea grass, wild roses and bleached tangles of driftwood that sweep north behind what was once a UBC experimental dairy farm. At Courtenay, the museum features a prehistoric plesiosaur. At Campbell River there’s another kind of dinosaur—a steam-powered donkey engine at the district museum.

Englishman River Falls
The river in this park thunders through deep canyons and over two spectacular waterfalls. A perpetual mist waters fern gardens that nestle in the rock walls in primeval splendour. Downstream, the torrent suddenly spills into a clear, tranquil pool that invites a refreshing plunge on a hot summer day. Just up the road is Coombs with its knick-knack and souvenir shops and the world-famous sod roof with grazing goats. A little farther north, kids can visit the Horne Lake Caves for a guided spelunking adventure.

Little Qualicum Falls
World-famous Cathedral Grove, renowned for its stand of Douglas fir and western red cedar that date from the time of William Shakespeare, is nearby, so is a sandy swimming beach on Cameron Lake. Well-groomed trails permit safe viewing of an impressive waterfall and there’s pleasant hiking in the cool woods around the campground. A short drive west is the Alberni Valley where the last and only steam-powered sawmill is still in operation and there’s a pleasant quay with souvenir shops and inexpensive eateries.•

Safety Outdoors
Make your camping trip a learning moment that kids can carry with them into adulthood. This is the time to teach them the practical outdoor safety basics and make them into a routine.

For Kids:
1. Get the kids to check the weather before you leave and to report and discuss what to expect.

2. Help the kids put together a personal checklist and to assemble their own small backpack with minimal survival gear. Include one day’s water, some energy bars, a warm outer garment (preferably waterproof), a compact space blanket, a small LED flashlight and a whistle. A fully charged cell phone is good if there’s service. Insist that they always carry their own pack.

3. Impress upon the kids that nobody ever hikes alone.

4. Have a plan and have the kids review what they must do if they should get lost or separated—stop; stay put; stay dry; signal with their whistle every five minutes until located.

5. Make them responsible for sunscreen and bug juice. (But carry a spare supply!)

For Parents:
1. Make a plan and stick to it. Always check the weather before leaving. Don’t arrive at your campsite after dark.

2. Carry a map and a compass. Even wilderness experts get lost. A hand-held GPS is great but not so great if the batteries run down or you drop it in a creek.

3. Carry adequate clothing for sudden and surprising changes in the weather. Your outer shell should be rain proof. Avoid cotton garments—wool or synthetics will keep you warm even when wet.

4. Carry enough emergency rations for everyone in the group in the event of the unforeseen.

5. Carry a first aid kit.

6. On a hike, adults always take point and tail-end Charlie—kids in between. Never let them out of sight and on the trail keep distances between hikers to a maximum of 10-15 steps.

7. At the beach, kids never go near the water without a parent close by, too. Familiarize yourself with the threat of rogue waves—nobody goes on the rocks anywhere near the surf. Familiarize yourself with currents and tidal conditions before any playing, even at the water’s edge.

8. The chance of a dangerous encounter with wildlife is very small but bears, cougars, wolves and coyotes do share B.C., so be aware. You can review safety guidelines at the BC Parks wildlife safety website: env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/wild_gen.html

9. While hiking, a light tarp and parachute cord is a good idea for quick shelter in an emergency.

10. Make sure somebody knows where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Be realistic about your schedule—kids will want time to explore.•