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Family night out

In Lexington, 5½-year-old Ian Robinson and his mother, Sue Paradis, test the family tent set up in their yard for Saturday’s campout. In Lexington, 5½-year-old Ian Robinson and his mother, Sue Paradis, test the family tent set up in their yard for Saturday’s campout. (Aram Boghosiam for the boston globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / June 21, 2012
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The Lexington couple have backpacked in Denali National Park in Alaska against the stunning, snow-covered backdrop of Mt. McKinley; hiked Utah’s Arches National Park with its iconic sandstone formations; spent two nights camped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Along the way, they’ve enjoyed the glimpses of wildlife, the spectacular views, the inner calm that comes with exploring nature, and the mornings waking up outside to the quiet and the fresh air.

But on Saturday, Sue Paradis and Mike Robinson will embark on what could be one of their greatest adventures yet: They’ll camp for the first time as a family. It won’t be in some exotic locale, though — the couple and their two young sons will spend the night in a tent just feet from their back door, when they participate in the National Wildlife Federation’s eighth Great American Backyard Campout.

“We’ll read, sing songs, sit out and have s’mores,” said Paradis, mother to 5½-year-old Ian, and 2-year-old Hugh. “We really just want to foster a love of the outdoors and camping in our children.”

That is the overarching goal of the nationwide camping night: to pull children, young adults, and adults alike out of the world of text and instant messages, e-mail, cellphones, computers, and video games, and reintroduce them to the natural one just outside their door. The event also ultimately raises money, through individual fund-raising and donations, for the National Wildlife Federation’s youth programs.

“We want to make it simple for families to just get outside,” said Karoline Hurd, the federation’s senior manager of special events.

And for kids, there are numerous benefits from camping. “They’re stronger, calmer, kinder, leaner, and smarter,” Hurd said. Plus, studies have shown that the simple act of playing in the dirt is beneficial for a child’s immune system.

Despite all the benefits, however, the National Wildlife Federation reports only 25 percent of US children play outside regularly.

Still, some experts assert that the pervasiveness of technology, coupled with the uncertain economy, will push people back outside. Last year, for example, Americans were involved in outside activities more than they had been in the previous five years, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Nearly 50 percent of all Americans age 6 and older — or 141.1 million people — participated in at least one outdoor activity last year, the association reported. According to a report by the Outdoor Foundation, Coleman Co., and Kampgrounds of America Inc., roughly 40 million Americans over age 6 – or 15 percent of the country — went camping in 2010.

As for the Great American Backyard Campout: It had 175,000 registered participants last year, according to Hurd, and raised more than $100,000 for the organization. The fund-raising has been part of the fun for Paradis and Robinson’s older son, Ian. The self-described nature-lover set a goal to raise $100 for the federation — and he surpassed it, raising $110 ($5 from his own funds).

So ultimately, “this whole experience has enabled us to have a dialogue with our kids about helping others and the environment,” Paradis said.

Of course, it’s fun, too.

On Saturday night, Ian will explore the yard with his flashlight, bug catcher, and a magnifying glass, and will likely pepper his mom and dad with questions about constellations, insects, plants, and life cycles of animals.

He camped for the first time at age 2 at Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border, Paradis said, and has spent weekends here and there with his parents around New England. “He just loves being outside,” she said.

Meanwhile, it’ll be 2-year-old Hugh’s first night of camping, but his parents are preparing him for a life spent outdoors. His birthday present this year? A sleeping bag.

The four will take their first camping trip this summer on Cape Cod. And eventually, mom and dad would like to introduce both kids to backpacking — and not just for free-spirited nights in the wilderness.

“Every backpacking trip my husband and I have ever taken has had some unforeseen thing happen,” Paradis said. “Overcoming adversity is good, challenging yourself is rewarding.”

Ultimately, she said, “I look forward to many years of camping with my family.”

As does Michelle Goodwin, an Upton resident who will tent up in her backyard Saturday night with her husband, Mike, and their three kids: 17-year-old Stephanie, 9-year-old Stanley, and 6-year-old Stacey. It’s the family’s second year taking part in the event.

She and her husband started out with what she called “primitive camping” in Vermont — they’d carry in water and a tent, dig a hole for a latrine, and collect wood for fires, Goodwin said.

“When you’re camping like that, you follow a real natural rhythm of nature,” she said.

They’ve also spent time camping in Alaska and the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where she’s been amazed by the dazzling array of stars visible in the sky.

As for Saturday night? She and her family will pick vegetables from their garden, grill their dinner, do a swamp hike and nature hunt, play hide-and-seek, then sleep in a two-room tent. “It’s reestablishing that connection that life is to be lived outside, and not inside four walls,” she said. “There’s more than just concrete and bricks and buildings.”

Still, Goodwin admitted, it can be a struggle to get the kids away from the computer and TV and out the door. But although it’s taken a bit of coaxing — and sometimes some all-out forcing — her three kids have become much more comfortable being outside.

“Last year when I asked for ideas of things to do, they wanted to run an extension cord from the house and bring the computer out into the tent,” she said. “This year they wanted to do a nature hunt. I think that pretty well sums up the goal of this event.”

For more information on the Great American Backyard Campout, or to register, visit www.nwf.org.

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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