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Round Table: Ideas for Summer Activities with Kids/Family

Summer Break is nigh and kids are home from school. What are you going to do with your vacation time? For parents who stay at home, how do you spend all that extra time with your kids?


My daughter is only 13 months old, so we are limited in what we can do because she doesn’t like car trips, she can’t walk yet, and nap time is right in the middle of prime morning time. However, I’ve found the following indoor activities to be helpful:

Playing with Mega Blocks. They’re easy to put together and stack, and they satisfy R’s need to take things out of bags and put them back in bags.

If I need a few minutes of quiet time, I just give R a bowl of dry Cheerios and let her dump them out on the floor. That way, she is distracted by trying to put them back in the bowl, and she also gets a snack. Bonus!

Splashing in the tub. It requires a lot of attention on my part, obviously, but it’s all the fun of going to the pool without bathing suits and sun screen. Plus, there are a ton of fun bath toys to experiment with.

A bag of “trash.” Whenever I get interesting wrappers or packaging, I save it in a paper shopping bag and put it in the living room. Sometime, R has more fun pulling out new pieces of “trash” than she does playing with her fancy toys!

Clean up the living room and let R trash it again. Once R pulls out all her books and toys, she just kind of plays on top of the pile until she gets bored. But if I do a quick cleanup, she gets to “trash” everything all over again. Which buys me some time to read a book while she occupies herself.

“App” time. I don’t normally advocate screen time for little kids, but using the iPad as a distraction is nice when I need some quiet time. My favorite app is “Pat the Bunny,” because it’s easy for toddlers to use, it has many different screens with fun activities, and it even has a “coloring” mode, where R just moves her hands all over the screen and makes sparkles and colors appear. Just make sure to turn off multitasking gestures first.

Finally, I sing songs a lot. Five Little Ducks, Five Jumping Monkeys, etc. Especially any songs that involve repetitive hand motions. Right now, it doesn’t seem to get her attention, but it’s a fun way to add words to her day and maybe she will imitate me eventually. I also sing songs about how to spell her name, what our phone number and address are, etc. Because even though she can’t repeat a lot of that now, it’s good to get in the habit.



Most of my efforts at leading at-home activities have been disastrous. A lot of the suggested toddler activities that I’ve found online frustrate my 3-year-old or prove too messy for me (glitter and glue are not my friends).

Some things that do seem to work with my 3-year-old:

Painting. I bought a paint tarp that I drape that over the coffee table so she can paint and make a (relatively) contained mess. When she’s done I throw out the masterpieces (after admiring them loudly) and then wrap up the tarp and toss it in the closet.

Gardening. Well, this sort of works. I had an extra large flower pot that I let her plant some lettuce seeds and beans in. Easy stuff that sprouts quickly. I bought her a little watering can too so she can tend to her garden. Sometimes she gets bored and throws the dirt all over the place but occasionally she waters and gently pats the plants.

Water table. Every parent of a toddler knows that this is money! In addition to the usual water toys, I bought some sea glass and river rocks for her to “find” in the garden and clean at the water table. Those provided only about a week of excitement but perhaps they can be “rediscovered” next month.

For my ten year old:

I practically squealed with excitement last week when we received my son’s summer homework packet. Things to do! That I didn’t have to think up! To avoid arguments about when the work is going to get done, I asked him to plot out a loose schedule on a google calendar. We’ll see if that actually works. But there should still be plenty of time for swimming and playing with friends. I feel like every school year is so completely overscheduled that I kind of fantasize about an honest to goodness lazy summer. We’ll see how that pans out.



So it’s winter here in rainy, cold, grey Cape Town so I guess I’ll just have to fall back on what we did last summer, namely THE SHOW. This was one of my crazier mom moments. Terrified of a summer holiday with a newborn and a five year old and no household help (yes, I am profoundly spoilt) and Mou working through, I decided that some structured activity was in order. So we arranged a variety show which the local kids performed on our back porch to an audience of friends and family on New Year’s eve. There were five acts in our show, ranging from a puppet show, to a mermaid rendition of Under the Sea, to some pretty impressive hip hop. At the beginning of the summer vac, I arranged a rehearsal routine whereby different kids came round EVERY DAY. So it sure as hell kept them busy!

Do I recommend this course of action? Well that depends. On the one hand, all the kids were kept entertained throughout the holiday, and I reckon they’ll not forget it in a hurry. They had a blast and we worked on our collaboration/compromise skills which were a bit lacking. On the other hand, it nearly killed me! And I suspect that there may be an expectation for a repeat at the end of this year (and possibly every year for forever). But who am I kidding? I love this kind of thing, and I’m never likely to be a stay at home mom again. So yeah, bring on the show!


The summer after M was born, we started to look around our area for fun, cheap things to do and was surprised how many I had never heard of, despite living here all my life.

Parks: The first thing I looked at was my local municipal and county parks, which was as easy as a google search and a little navigation on the parks dept website. Turns out there was a one with a natural waterfall 15 minutes from our house. When we got there, M, who is two, declared it was “my river” as he stomped in it.


I was also surprised by how many parks had either splash pads for kids to play in or man-made beaches. Unfortunately many of them don’t have great information on their websites, but a quick call to the Parks Dept filled that in what was missing.

Children’s Museum’s: Even before it seemed age appropriate, M had a lot of fun just exploring the place, seeing all the cool stuff they had. We went on a quiet weekday afternoon when there weren’t many other kids around so he could crawl unimpeded.

Gardening: M loves to “help” while we garden. He has his own set of plastic tools and a little area set aside where he can move dirt around. Sunscreen and a little hat and he is ready to go.


It’s hard to believe but I’ve been doing this for nine summers. You would think that I would have the hang of it by now. Scope out the nearby playgrounds. If you have one within walking distance then by all means spend some time there. Bring a book or your knitting, sit on a bench and let the kids burn off steam. In the States most playgrounds have been rendered so safe as to be almost boring for all but the most timid of the post toddler children, so be on the lookout for older playgrounds that might have some pre-80’s equipment. If you find a place with real steel slides or a merry go round then cherish it. If you are having trouble finding a nice playground, the people at the excellent non-profit KaBoom can help you locate one with their playground finder, The Mobile Map of Play. And if your neighborhood is really desperate for a place to play then check out KaBoom’s Dream Playground program where they help volunteers bring playgrounds to kids all around the country. If you want to see what a perfect preschooler playground looks like, check out this ancient blog post of mine.

Another thing I have started doing is including the Hellions more in the day to day running of the household. This isn’t about cleaning their room or doing chores, but instead enlisting them as “helpers” at some of the mundane tasks, like grocery shopping, laundry, cooking. Make it sound like a special occasion and you’ll be surprised how much work you can get out of them.

And most important in my opinion, take care of yourself! Don’t let them run you ragged. Make some time each day just for you if you have the luxury. A little junk TV each day won’t kill them if it keeps you from actually killing them.



The boys are 19 months (15 corrected) so our summer days are are structured around a long morning nap and a short afternoon one. In the morning, we do activities that it will be too hot to do later, and in the afternoon we take advantage of summer weather for fun. Because I only work part time, activities need to be inexpensive so we do a lot of random play and crafts. Planning ahead and watching for sales during winter has been huge for being able to afford fun stuff in the summer.

Morning activities include “walking” to the park which has a surface too hot to play on in the afternoon, fingerpainting in the driveway (roll of paper = $5 at Ikea & lasts most of the summer fingerpaints from dollar tree), playing in the front yard (today they rolled random items from the recycling bin down the sidewalk), walking down to the busy road and watching the trucks drive by, playing with walkers or giant balls on the usually empty basketball courts or soccer fields.

Mornings end with tending our tiny garden (which has plants spaced widely apart and the plants I want to keep surrounded by tomato cages. Everything else is a free-for all for toddler squashing and yanking) because they always end up gleefully soaked through and perfect for changing into nap pjs.

Afternoons often involve water of some sort: playing in a kiddie pool in the yard, playing in the sprinkler, going to the swimming pool or lake, or wading in the creek up the road (bonus, wild raspberries grow on the route to the creek). On other days, hot weather is a good time to go to the aquarium, nearby bounce house, or indoor play center (all of which sell annual memberships for a discount in the winter, so visits are pretty cheap).  This is also a good time to hit up wooded parks, which have wonderful walking/hiking trails (including the local dog park, where they love watching the dogs play). Any water based or cold activity is fun too: making ice cream, playing with water, and in once case, I simply gave them a cooler filled with ice and shovels.


Weekdays are largely someone else’s provenance for me – the 4 year old is in preschool year round, the rising middle schooler (!) is in a host of summer camps for half the summer and traveling much of the other half. If you have grandparents or other family or friends who can take them in, I highly recommend this option. Aside from providing parents with a welcome break, it is great for kids to have opportunities to explore new situations without us around as parents. My son has spent a 1-2 weeks with his distant grandparents every summer since he was 4. They hike and go for froyo and play golf and he plays with the kid next door and somehow they fill their days and he comes home exhausted and happy after several days of the kind of focused loving attention that only someone who can suspend their ordinary lives for a bit can provide. This will be my son’s last solo summer, since next year his sister will be old enough to fly with him, so they will both head west one way or another.

For weekends or those weeks when there is no camp scheduled, museums, libraries, parks, swimming pools – those are all your friends. From what I’ve seen of my son’s off weeks, the biggest issue starts to be ennui. It gets too easy to just sit in front of a screen like a lump, which no one wants. I like to think that if I were heading up 10 weeks of togetherness I would do a series of mini-camps. Head to the library, sign up for the summer reading program, and check out the calendar of events. Pick something every couple of weeks that you both want to do. And then pick some themes for the kid to teach you about each week or so – maybe he’s into space or owls (listening to Rotate Your Owl in the background as I type) or F-14 fighter jets – help him learn how to find books in the library or videos on YouTube or projects on Pinterest that he can mostly do. Bonus points if you have interesting inexpensive options locally that can provide some outdoor adventures – pick a new park or other location each week and go to town.



The offspring is 17 now, and the challenge is more finding things that she’s willing to do with her parents than finding things that she will do on her own. The funny thing is, those activities are often the ones that we did when she was little. Travel, museums, and botanical gardens are still popular when we can allot the time. For at-home days I used to give her projects and turn her loose to work on them while I did what I needed to do. It was time together, but I didn’t have to interact continuously. I’d show her how to do something like sew, or draft patterns, or make simple book-bindings. Once she could read, I’d just hand her directions and let her figure out how to follow them. It didn’t matter if she did things “right” or what she came up with (although, cool things often came out of it), only that she was interested. As a teenager mum-time isn’t always on her radar. Parallel projects are a way that we can spend time together, without either of us feeling restless. Sometimes we listen to audio books while we work on things. That way we can both “read” the same book, while working on whatever we’re into at the moment, and spending time together.


After the winter we’ve had in the Great White North, my priority for the summer is spending as much time as possible outside. E. has pale skin, so we’re in a routine of getting up, eating breakfast, putting on sunscreen and getting dressed, and then getting outside well before it gets hot. E. is now three, and both Husband and I have noticed how happy he is when he is outdoors, and how much easier it is to cope with him.

Given we live in a large city and don’t own a car, E. has become accustomed over the last year to walking everywhere in our neighbourhood and to taking public transit when we venture further afield. Never underestimate the potential fun of a streetcar/subway/bus ride. Some days I basically invent errands to allow for such an outing. E. can also now walk over three kilometres before getting tired and can walk at quite a fast pace for a little kid, which means we can go for walks in the ravine system, get to the library, head to a bakery for a snack, etc. I try to intersperse these types of errands in the morning with days where we just go to one of the local parks. The best parks for us are ones with good quality sand: E. isn’t really into climbing structures but will dig in the sand for hours. When it gets warmer, we’ll start hitting the splash pads and wading pools too.

In the late afternoon we tend to stick close to home. E. loves his sand/water table. He also loves gardening. I’ll weed, and he’ll drive his dump truck and load the weeds into the bucket before driving it back around the house to put in the yard waste bin. We bought him child-sized gardening gloves and tools for his birthday and they’re getting a lot of use. We also do a lot of nature walks- bird-watching, flower identification, looking for insects, etc. I want E. to feel connected with the natural world, even though he lives in a big city.

I will say to parents whose toddlers are dropping their naps- don’t be afraid! Now that E. no longer naps, it frees us up for longer, full-day excursions (which also guarantee that he’ll sleep really well at night). I’m looking forward to ferry rides across to the islands, trips to the beach, and maybe a visit to the zoo in the coming months. He’ll be home with us full-time in the summer, so we’ll need to balance such activities with quieter days where he (and his parents!) get a chance to rest and recharge.

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Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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