School’s out for summer! Those words either strike terror in your heart or make you think of Alice Cooper. Never fear, with a little planning you can have lots of fun with the kids this summer. A fun thing to do with the kids is to plan outings or family day trips.
I found I didn’t really know my area well until I had kids. Sure, I knew the great places to have a drink with friends after work, which bakery had the best pastries when I was running late in the morning, and where you could get an awesome taco, but if you’d asked me where a playground was, I would have drawn a blank.
We’ve lived in three different states since I had my first child, so you could blindfold me, spin me around, and ask me to point to a playground and I could probably nail it.
The thing you have to remember about little kids is that they can have fun with a cardboard box. Why does that matter? Because it means you don’t have to look far to have fun. You may pull up to a park that only has a few small trees and a nearly dry creek and be less than impressed, but they can run and pretend and explore for hours. Sometimes it’s better than going to an amusement park, and certainly cheaper. I don’t mind spending money for activities when we travel, but with three kids and eating out with everyone, it adds up. So, we do tend to look for free things to do to make the most of our trips.
Here are a few ideas for guaranteed fun family day trips:
Try: Lakes and beaches
Instead of: Pools or waterparks
Waterparks are generally a bad fit for small children. There are way too many opportunities to run off, and there’s deep water and fun things they are too little for everywhere. Pools can also be frustrating since most don’t have a way for your child to get used to the water at their own pace. Many lakes have shoreline beach parks, which makes the experience more like the ocean. Even a small baby who can’t crawl can sit and play in the sand with toys. Walkers can wade in as they are comfortable. This is also a cheaper option. If you’re charged at all, it will probably be by the car, and you can also bring your own picnic. Kids can play all day in the sand and have a blast. I also like that playing at the beach is self-directed, and allows kids to explore at their own pace and use their imagination.
Try: Local festivals in nearby towns
Instead of: The zoo
I don’t mind the zoo, but anywhere you go, an elephant is an elephant. And there’s usually not many interactive things kids can do unless you pay extra for rides and things. They are also generally crowded and you have to pay for everyone to get it in, plus to park. Local festivals are usually family friendly and will offer free things for the kids to do, like bounce houses, face painting, crafts, or other games. It’s also a cool way to check out the local food, culture, and heritage of another area. If you have a great time, you can make it an annual trip.
Try: Playgrounds/children’s museums
Instead of: Theme parks
Sure, my idea of a great trip is not hitting a playground exactly like the ones we can find at home. But when we road trip, our strategy is to plan one thing for the kids and one thing for us. So we look up cool local playgrounds that might have something new to offer, let the kids play for an hour or two and get good and worn out, then hit that new brewery we saw, a museum, or tour that looks cool. We have run across some amazing children’s museums around the Northeast, and even some really cool playgrounds. The kids have a great time and are worn out enough to be chill when we move on to our grown-up activity.
Try: Historical landmarks
Instead of: Indoor museums
My husband and I love to check out local history in the areas we visit, but taking three kids under 6 to the museum hasn’t always ended well. (They have surprised me a few times, though.) What is fun is checking out outdoor historical landmarks where it’s fine for the kids to run around and explore. Obviously this isn’t appropriate for all outdoor landmarks. When we went to see the Vietnam Memorial is Washington, we talked to our oldest about what it was, what it represented, and why we needed to be quiet and respectful there. I had the youngest in the stroller and my husband held our three-year-old so she wouldn’t run through it. But many outdoor landmarks have nature trails and outdoor space that make them less stressful to visit with small kids. If you do need to take a stroller, keep in mind that most places will be labeled as to their handicap accessibility, and that helps let you know how stroller-friendly it will be.
When you can’t take a stroller, don’t miss out! Babywearing has helped us to do many fun things with the kids that involve going places where strollers can’t. It’s pretty easy to back carry kids up to about 40 pounds with little effort. I certainly prefer babywearing to whining about being tired, anyway.
Before you go
A few things are important for a successful day trip. Make sure your kids get a good night’s sleep before you go, and try not to really wear them out the day before. Time your travel to coincide with naps if naps are still important. Bring plenty of snacks and water to avoid extra stops, and still plan about one extra hour of travel for every four hours you need to drive if you need to be arrive at a certain time. Have a relaxed schedule and don’t try to do too much, especially if your kids are younger. Toddlers and preschoolers get over stimulated easily and can melt down. They also love to literally stop and smell the roses. There is no recipe for disaster so sure as trying to rush a toddler.
Most of all, have fun and be flexible. If plans have to change, that’s fine. Try to roll with it. And don’t forget to make tons of great memories!