1. Have a watermelon speed spitting contest. “Outside, I said outside!”
2. Set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. Then encourage kids to set up their own obstacle courses.
3. Hang water-filled balloons from your backyard swing set or low tree branch as splashy pinatas.
5. Make story stones and let the storytelling begin.
6. Set up backyard bowling. Save 10 empty plastic bottles, set them up in a triangular pattern, then roll a ball toward them. This makes a satisfying clatter on the driveway. If you like, teach your kids how to keep score.
7. Go on a camera scavenger hunt. First choose a theme, like Ten Things That Move or A Dozen Signs of Summer. Then send kids out to grab some images. Encourage them to find creative, funny, and unusual ways to interpret the theme.
9. Take late-night walks. Kids enjoy this even more when they are in charge of the flashlights.
10. Build a bat house.
11. Make your own ice cream sandwiches. Just glob ice cream between homemade or purchased cookies, wrap in plastic wrap and chill. Try different cookie and ice cream variations. Mix-ins work too, like bananas mashed into strawberry ice cream and stuck between two oatmeal cookies. You’ll have to do some immediate taste testing, part of the burden of innovation.
12. Encourage grubby fun. Designate an area of the yard where kids can play right in the dirt. They might want to set up a mudpie kitchen. They might want to use it to build mountains and valleys for their toy dinosaurs, cars, or action figures. They might want to add water to make mud pies. They might want to dig holes, perhaps looking for archaeological finds using Hands-On Archaeology: Real-Life Activities for Kids as a guide.
13. Since they’re going to get dirty, you might want to build a walk-through (or bike through) kid wash. This could be handy for muddy dogs as well.
14. Play classic outdoor games, the ones every kid used to know.
15. Let each child plant one “crop” in the garden that is his or hers to tend. Fast-growing plants like sugar snap peas, radishes, and green beans are ideal. Let the kid farmer in charge be the one to check regularly for weeds, watering needs, and harvest times. For more ideas check out Gardening Projects for Kids and for those of you without yards or community garden plots, try Kids’ Container Gardening.
17. Mail yourselves postcards when you go somewhere for the day, even around town. Later in the week kids will think it’s a hoot to get a card from themselves. Check out 37 other ways to have fun with snail mail.
19. Let yeast blow up a balloon. Have kids write their names on balloons with a permanent marker. Using a funnel, let them fill each balloon with 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon dry yeast. Add a little warm water to each balloon, tie shut, and shake to mix. Then put them outside on a hot sunny day. Check to see how big the balloons have gotten every ten minutes or so. Guess what might happen to balloons that get too big.
21. Give the kids a budget and let them plan what the family will do next Saturday.
22. Throw a BYOB party. This is cheap, imagination-driven fun. You wield cutting implements and supply lots of tape. Guests are charged with one simple task: Bring. Your. Own. Box. Together kids can construct a fort or spaceship or whatever they please out of the boxes, then spend hours playing in it. There are plenty of other ways to amuse kids with cardboard boxes too.
23. Get out a big, somewhat complicated puzzle and work on it when it’s too hot to go outside.
24. Work with kids to create an outdoor water wall.
25. Make a worm tower or indoor worm farm. For more information, check out Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System.
26. Slap the label “memory jar” on any large container and encourage your family to toss in slips of paper describing an ordinary day, funny family sayings, silly happenings, and other things that might slip your minds. This memory jar can become an important family tradition.
27. Throw a backyard batik party and enjoy messy art-making with a crowd.
28. Find out how advanced hooping has become and how to get your kids started. You’ll want to provide a good example of hula hoop enthusiasm. Here’s how to make a hoop that will fit your, ahem, grown-up hips.
29. Get retro and experience a drive-in movie with your kids. You can search this database to find one nearest you. If there’s no hope of finding one remotely close by, set up a backyard movie theater. You might want to invite the neighborhood for an ’80s family film fest. To give it that drive-in vibe, kids can make their own cars out of cardboard boxes. That way during the movie they can sit with their feet up on a cardboard dash and spill popcorn all over the cardboard interior without anyone bugging them about it.
30. Set up a backyard zip-line between two trees.
31. Investigate solar power. Make solar prints by arranging objects on photo-sensitive sheets in a SunPrint Paper Kit, then set outside to print like magic. Build a solar-powered cockroach using these Instructables directions. Assemble your own solar cooker and make lunch using only the sun’s rays for heat. You can find all sorts of plans here.
33. Let little ones “paint” the house, car, driveway, and everything else. All that’s needed are wide paintbrushes and an empty paint can or small bucket of water. Water wiped on with a brush temporarily darkens many surfaces, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again.
35. Keep fruits like bananas, mangoes, pineapple, strawberries, and peaches in separate containers in the freezer. On different days let each child take a turn concocting a smoothie for the family by blending his or her choice of fruit with juice and/or yogurt in the blender. Serve in tiny cups for taste testing. Encourage the creator to come up with a name for the frozen delight, like Toby’s Tooth Freeze or Sadie’s Strawberry Slush.
36. Use an old clay pot to make a toad house in the yard.
37. Make temporary designs with fizzing sidewalk paint.
38. Hand out old sheets so kids can hang them from tree branches and swing sets to make hideouts. Or make them using hula hoops.
39. Make rainbow bubble snakes.
40. Build a throwing target game with sticks and recycled cans.
42. Use a bleach pen to decorate t-shirts, pillow cases, hats, tote bags. A plain dark-colored background gives the best results.
43. Set up relay races. It’s a great way to get your loved ones to hop in sacks and crawl with laundry baskets. When summer is gone you’ll want those photos.
44. Cook something over a campfire or fire pit together. Standards are a hot dog or marshmallow on a stick, although you can find 100 other ideas in Campfire Cooking
45. Bat balloons around with pool noodles. Yes, the kids will sword fight with them. It’s inevitable.
46. For older kids, give in and make foam swords. For peace of mind you may also want to make foam-covered shields, foam body pads, and operate on a no-running-hits/no-face-hits rule. Any violation and parents get to use the swords. Or simply fence with cardboard tubes. The Cardboard Tube Fighting League rules are worthy indeed.
47. Make homemade playdough using one of these six recipes. No mess to clean up indoors when they use it on a picnic table.
48. Become an orienteering family.
49. On clear nights, go outside to look for constellations.
50. Encourage kids to throw corn cobs in the grass at your next picnic. Legend in my family says it distracts the bugs. When it’s clean up time, whoever picks up the most cobs wins a coveted window seat on the way home. Surely you can come up with a similar cob-related perk. Added plus, everyone wants to wash their gooey hands before leaving.
52. Make homemade chalk.
53. Take a meal outdoors, sit on the grass, and eat directly from the plate without hands or utensils. We call this “trough feeding” and it’s been a summer tradition. Bet you can’t do it without laughing through the whole meal. Bet you’ll also find yourselves talking about how different animals eat.
54. Make sponge bombs out of cheap household sponges, then soak and use for tossing games. Unlike water balloons, these will last all summer. They also make a lovely smacking sound when dropped on an unsuspecting sibling from the top of a slide. I warned you…
55. Fill your passports. Well, homemade passports. Give each child a small blank book. Together with your kids make a list of parks, fairs, festivals, and other events you’d like to attend. Each time you do, bring back a souvenir. It might be a leaf, a ticket stub, or a photo. Paste it in the blank book with a sentence or two about the adventure. At the end of summer you’ll have a book of memories.
Some activities from Free Range Learning.