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Keeping Your Kids Busy Without a Traditional Summer Vacation

This summer may look a little different, but it can still be as fun and memorable as ever.

young girl splashing hose and pool and sunflare
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If you’re like many parents who planned your family summer vacation earlier in the year, you’ve probably spent the past few months trying to make new arrangements. Many families are skipping the flights and renting RVs for road trips. Disney World plans on reopening July 11, but you might not be ready for that type of vacation. According to a survey from MMGY Travel Intelligence, in partnership with the U.S. Travel Association, 47 percent of respondents said they’d be more likely to travel by car.

You’ve likely set up a routine for your kids while they were under quarantine. Maintaining a routine is just as important for the summer. “Encouraging routines around meals, naps and bedtimes, even in the summer, will help break up the day and provide structure for your little ones,” says Nicole Grossmayer-Mercado, executive director of Little Smiles, a nonprofit that helps caring professionals bring joy to children in tough situations. But more importantly, maintain positivity. “Above all, parents should be kind to themselves and not put pressure on themselves to create a backyard Disney World this summer,” she says. “Children will be happy if they see their parents are happy.”

The good news is, businesses across the country have taken note and pivoted on their summer offerings, but there’s a lot to consider. In a survey of 1,100 moms by Party City, almost 80 percent of moms said they were concerned on how they would entertain their children after 2 to 3 months of home schooling. By this time, you've probably tried all of the family board games and watched plenty of funny family movies. If you’re juggling work and childcare, virtual summer camps may be a great way to keep your kids engaged during the day. But if you’re over Zoom and want to limit screen time (unless it’s something educational!), this list offers plenty of fun ways to stay busy.

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1 Make a List
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The first thing author Jessica Speer and her kids did this summer was create a "Things We Want to Do This Summer" list. “This helps us brainstorm and get our ideas on paper so the summer doesn't slip by,” she says. “Some of our usual activities, like traveling and visiting grandma, are not possible given the pandemic as well as financial constraints. My kids understand the need to stay home more this summer, so have been really accommodating to a different plan.” Most of the activities are free and home-based due to the pandemic. Speer has found that since they came up with the list themselves, the kids have been especially engaged in the activities.

2 Sharpen Your Skills
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Most students will be heading back in the fall after a very unique school year. Whether it was cut short or became a modified remote learning experience, you may feel like your kids need a little catching up. Teachers will be ready in the fall to help kids get back on track, but you can do your part, too. Create a reading challenge with a fun reward at the end, like an ice cream party, movie night, or new toy. Now that you’ve taken on a part-time teacher role during quarantine, you may have noticed certain subjects where your kids could use some extra attention. Consider online options like Wyzant, which offers tutoring in more 230 subject areas.

3 Camp in the Backyard
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If you have the room, this is a great way to “get out” this summer, without going too far. Share scary stores, make some s’mores, and doze off under the stars. “One classic idea you can't go wrong with is the backyard camp-out,” says Theresa Bertuzzi, co-owner and co-founder of Tiny Hoppers. “Get some blankets, pillows, and sleeping bags ready, because it's time to turn your backyard into a weekend adventure. Kids love to make a pretend campfire and roast marshmallows, play board games and just spend time being lazy in the tent.” If you’re a city dweller, or prefer not to camp outside, bring the tent indoors. Use some imagination and turn any room in your house into an outdoor oasis.

4 Virtual Summer Camps
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Many traditional camps across the country have canceled or postponed camp season, although that’s largely dependent on your state’s current regulations. Coding, art, robotics, and karate are just a few of the options available. If your kids are regular campers, check with your camp to see if they’ve developed a virtual experience. Party City and Little Tikes Camp Play@Home are two companies sharing fun activities throughout the summer. Another idea: Varsity Tutors, a series of free online summer camps for kids ages 5-18. Each week-long camp features live, interactive classes in photography, theater, coding and chess.

5 Learn a New Language
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Not only is learning a new language great for the brain, it promotes open-mindedness and introduces kids to different people, cultures, and ways of life. “There are many ways for kids to learn Spanish, in particular, from the comfort of their own homes this summer,” says Rachel Kamath, founder of Small World Spanish. She recommends lessons through the Homeschool Spanish Academy. For a wider range of languages, Rosetta Stone for Students is offering free access this summer.

6 Stay Cool
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Is your local community pool closed? If you have room for an inflatable pool, kids will appreciate the ability to splash around, even if it’s not the usual swimming experience. “Think outside the box this summer and transform your backyard into an oasis that’ll keep your kids busy all summer long,” says Heather Meehan, an outreach consultant for Heart Water. “All you really need is a couple of plastic swimming pools to create your very own beach scene. Fill one with sand and the other with water for a DIY ‘surf & turf’ retreat that your kids will adore.” You may also want to stock up on some water guns, slip and slides and sprinklers for some variety. There are a lot of water games you can play outside with your kids to stay refreshed in the hot summer months.

7 Neighborhood Scavenger Hunt
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Team up with local parents to create a fun way for kids to spend the day in their neighborhood. “Create a list of plants that can be found in your neighborhood,” says Debbie Lopez of Zivadream, an education advocacy and test prep review website. “Be specific. Instead of asking them to identify a flower or a tree, ask for a rose or an oak.” If you want to share the results, consider setting up a Zoom call, or posting the results on a neighborhood social media page.

8 "Go" to the Zoo
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Although many zoos are still closed, there are plenty of ways you can still stay connected from your home. For example, San Diego Zoo Global encourages parents, educators, and fans from around the world to stay connected to their favorite animals with wildlife cams, video stories, hands-on activities, games, and online classes. The Brevard Zoo in Florida’s Space Coast is also offering a Zoom-based three-day session through August. The paid program offers animal encounters, scavenger hunts, zoo tours, and more. If you live near a drive-through safari, like Six Flags in New Jersey, you can get closer to the animals while social distancing.

9 Grow a Garden
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A great thing to do this summer is start a vegetable garden by saving your own seeds from fruits and vegetables. “When we shop for vegetables and fruit, we try to find the ones with seeds inside, or the ones that can be grown from cuttings,” says Elle Meager, founder of Outdoor Happens. “It’s very easy, lots of fun, and you still get to eat the vegetables so you don’t lose any money.” She recommends starting with pumpkin, squash, cucumber, and tomato. You can develop your own love for gardening alongside your kids.

10 Foster (or Adopt!) a Pet
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A piece of good news out of the coronavirus: many animal shelters are celebrating the boost in adoptions. According to the Humane Society of the United States, the rates of fostering have increased by 90 percent in some cities. Not only will your children have a new friend this summer, but they’ll learn some valuable responsibility skills.

Author Jessica Speer jumped on the opportunity to help take care of a family of cats. “On the first day of summer break, we saw a Facebook post that the shelter needed foster homes for kittens,” she says. “I called the shelter and they had a mother cat and six one-week old kittens. We picked them up later that day. My kids are thrilled to have this cat family in our house. They are never bored because they can always tend to the kittens. They weigh them daily to track growth, make sure the mom cat is fed and feeling loved, change the cat litter, and more. They love watching the kittens change and grow.”

11 Learn to Cook
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Cook up some summer fun with free recipes and activities from Raddish, a monthly subscription kit and cooking club for kids. Kids will learn key skills in their at-home cooking camp, like cracking eggs and kneading dough. This year, the company is also offering virtual summer cooking camps (at a cost), with themes like Restaurant Camp, Around the World, and Summer Fun. The week-long camps are suitable for kids ages 8-13. “Our cooking camps are designed to excite kids about the joys of cooking and help them hone a lifelong skill,” says Samantha Barnes, founder of Raddish Kids. “From empowering kids to start and run their own restaurant to taking them on a tour of the world through flavors, our goal remains the same: to nurture kids' confidence in the kitchen and beyond.” The company also offers a popular kids subscription kit, designed for kids ages 4-14. Each monthly kit features a different theme ranging from seasons and holidays to cultures and creative cookery.

Baketivity, a subscription-based baking box service, launched Bake-A-Camp. Campers will get a big baking box featuring four themed Baketivity kits with pre-measured ingredients, step by step instructions, and an activity book (all you need are the eggs, oil, and water). Each week’s kit will take campers through progressively advanced recipes and techniques as they explore one theme, or cuisine throughout the month.

If you’re looking for less of a commitment to cooking, but still want to get your kids in the kitchen, plan your own in-house cooking workshop. “Apart from learning to make yummy dishes, children also develop mathematical skills, safety measures, cleanliness, motor skills and more,” says Will Ward, CEO of Assistive Listening HQ.

12 Teach Your Kids about Entrepreneurship
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Help your kids build a better future for themselves and encourage them to start a business. “I've been advocating that kids start ‘Stuck-at-Home Startups’ this summer to have fun and begin to build an entrepreneurial mindset that will serve them well in life and give them the opportunity to earn money for themselves, their family, or a good cause,” says Brian Weisfeld, co-author of The Startup Squad. Weisfeld’s ideas for this summer include online tutoring, selling items for neighbors on eBay, designing and selling T-shirts, and taking photos for stock photo websites.

Ray Ronan, a literary agent, also encourages families to get creative and write a children’s book together. The idea transformed his kids into authors and entrepreneurs at ages 8 and 13. He’s developed an online video course called Write a Book with Your Kids to help other families get started.

13 DIY Summer Camp
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Neighborhood families can come together and organize their own mini summer camps and activities. That’s the thought behind Sittercity’s DIY summer camp. The online source for in-home care also offers virtual sitting, a tool that allows parents to hire a professional to engage and play with children virtually for short periods of time throughout the day.

“As a company filled with moms and dads, we understand how hard it is for parents trying to do everything at home right now,” says Elizabeth Harz, CEO of Sittercity, America’s first online source for in-home care. “Child care professionals are still in need of work and their support is available. Many daycares, schools and camps have been sidelined, but our platform continues to connect families with child care providers. A DIY summer camp is just one way to adapt to the current situation of needing care and wanting to provide some fun and normalcy for your family, but also wanting to keep your bubble as small as possible.” The experience can range from outdoor activities like scavenger hunts and tie-dying to a coach leading small groups of community kids in parent organized soccer camps.

14 Family-Friendly Experiments
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Keep your kids entertained with these easy experiments, using ordinary household items. Mad Science has a collection of experiments, which are compiled on their website with videos and downloadable instructions. Some of the projects that may appeal to your family: a soap-powered boat, balloon hovercraft, DIY sprinkler, and bottle barometer.

KinderCare Education is also offering a weekly at-home activity hub with guides for all ages to help families stay active and engaged at home. Dr. Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer at KinderCare, recommends some other fun activities, like DIY scratch-paper fireworks, talking art, and a whole series of fun using ice.

15 Learn About the World
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Kids love getting mail, and with fun and educational subscription boxes, kids will have something to look forward to with perfectly timed gifts year-round. Teach children about countries from around the world and their cultures with Little Global Citizens. This subscription service, staring at $39.95, sends a box to kids, aged 4 to 10, to bring a new country and its culture to life. “Little Global Citizens’ boxes include crafts, books, screen-free games, puzzles, recipes and more from countries like Kenya, China, India and Jamaica,” says Akeelah Kuraishi, CEO of Little Global Citizens.

16 Become a Young Artist
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Kim Bloomberg, a Chicago-based art teacher, recently pivoted to creating “camp-in-a-box” experiences for tweens/teens. Art Beat Box takes the guesswork and the supply purchasing out of the equation by creating comprehensive art project boxes. Each box contains five higher level art projects, like mosaics, painting and polymer clay for ages 9-99. They include all of the supplies, materials and a video tutorial to complete each project. “We saw a huge hole in the teen/tween market since so many projects are entirely geared towards younger children,” says Bloomberg. “Older kids really need to be occupied, but more importantly, this is a perfect stage of life to embark on a new hobby."

17 Explore Nature
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With summer camps and vacations on hold, a great summer activity for kids is to hit the trail for a hike. AllTrails, an outdoor recreation app, helps users find and navigate trails and parks, making getting outside easier and more accessible. Users can filter to find trails that are suitable for their needs, like kid-friendly or dog-friendly. The app has also added several features to help users maintain social distancing. “We all know that it’s important for kids to get outside and play,” says Dr. Suzanne-Bartlett Hackenmiller, an integrative medicine physician and medical advisor for AllTrails. “Not only is it vital to our children’s physical, mental, and emotional health, but it promotes creativity, and teaches valuable social skills.”

Natalie Lloyd, a parenting blogger at Milkweed & Messes, believes that one of the best ways to keep kids occupied during summer vacation is to get outside with them. “Encouraging kids to explore their surroundings will allow them to work through any boredom while also getting the body and brain moving in ways that kids so desperately need,” she says. “Together, parents and children can learn about bugs, butterflies, plants, and more. Even when families are just walking and talking together, the bonding time is so helpful.” Once you’re outside for the day, don’t forget to set up a family picnic. You can keep it simple with a brown bag lunch, or take some inspiration from these 94 delightful picnic food ideas.

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