DISCOVERY BAY -- The eight small children enrolled in Our Place Preschool spent the past week pretending to camp. With a small tent set up in their classroom, they "fished" out of a blue paper pond, learned how to tell directions on a faux campground sign, and even made s'mores (those were real).
On Saturday, they got to do the real thing, joining roughly 2,000 other people who braved a scorching summer afternoon in Cornell Park for Discovery Bay's fourth annual National Wildlife Federation Great American Backyard Campout.
"They've just had so much fun this week," said teacher Melanie Bowers-Wilkerson, whose preschool was awarded tents, sleeping bags and camp chairs by campout sponsor Coleman, after she wrote an essay about her classroom "camping."
Doubling in size each of the past four years, Discovery Bay's campout is now the largest in the United States, said NWF naturalist David Mizejewski, who traveled from the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C., to take part.
Most who joined in were Discovery Bay residents, but it is a free event open to anyone who signs up, said Karen Rarey, who organized the event along with Amanda Dove. She said some campers had come from as far away as Los Angeles.
Overall, the NWF expected 200,000 people across the country would be camping out in local parks, campgrounds or even in their own backyards Saturday night. Organizers described it as low-pressure camping that can be a great, simple way to ease children into the pastime.
"Our message is that nature is all around us," Mizejewski said. "You don't have to go out into the wilderness. You can literally go outside your door."
The goal of the campout is twofold. In addition to pushing back against the trend of children spending more and more time indoors watching television, playing video games or logged onto computers, the federation wants to help kids connect with nature, and eventually to become the next generation of environmental stewards.
With activities at Saturday's event that included a rock climbing wall, wildlife show, sports games, a flashlight scavenger hunt and a campfire complete with s'mores, drawing kids' interest was an easy task.
Discovery Bay's Erin Zimmerman, who had set up a campsite with her husband, Chris Zimmerman, and their three kids -- Matthew, 5, Joshua, 3, and Leah, 1 -- said she appreciated how family friendly the setting was. With so many kids there, families didn't have to worry about a tantrum or late-night case of the giggles disturbing other campers.
"It's been just great to get the kids outside," Erin Zimmerman said.
The event has become a true community effort, Rarey said. The Byron Delta Lions Club provided a hot dog dinner, and the Brentwood Rotary served up a pancake breakfast Sunday morning.
Jonathon Knittel, a 14-year-old member of Discovery Bay's Boy Scout Troop 514, put in an afternoon's work along with the rest of his troop, helping organizers carry supplies and even teaching novice campers how to pitch their tents.
Knittel, a frequent camper, said he liked how relaxed Saturday's event was compared with his troop's more intense camping trips.
"I think every community should do it," Knittel said.
The Boy Scouts were also on deck to do a parkwide trash sweep Sunday morning to make sure it is left in pristine condition.
Relaxing in a lounge chair in a patch of much-coveted shade, Vallejo resident Shelly Hahn was among a group of more seasoned campers who saw a listing for the event on Facebook and decided to give it a try.
"We're campers, but it was nice to hear about something close to home, a nice, easy one-night thing," Hahn said. "I hope they keep it going."