Nothing makes a splash like a game of water-balloon ball. This simple activity can be enjoyed by four players or more, says Len Saunders, a children's fitness expert and author of Keeping Kids Fit. Here's how:
Gather supplies: You'll need 25 to 50 small balloons, a wiffle ball bat, two bases, a garbage can, and a basketball.
Fill the balloons with water. "It takes only about 10 minutes," says Saunders. Keep them in a trash bag or large bin.
When a batter hits a water balloon, it'll explode—cue squeals of delight—and the batter runs from home base to the second base, placed wherever you like.
Meanwhile, a player from the opposing team tries to shoot the basketball into the garbage can, placed behind home base. "A shooting line designated by both teams must be respected," says Saunders. "If a player misses the shot, she can chase the ball and throw it back to one of her teammates waiting on the shooting line, so she may take another shot." If the shot is made before the batter returns to home plate, he's 'out,' and the opposing team gets a point. If not, the batting team gets a point.
You've probably seen an owl or two lately, on your kids' clothes, perhaps (owls are tres trendy as decorative items right now)—so why not thrill your junior zoologist by spying on a real live one in its natural habitat? "A lot of us don't think about evening activities for kids, but it's a perfect time to get outside as a family—it's not so hot, and it's fun and different," says Bethe Almeras, the education and outreach director of Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play. Check with local nature centers or park districts—most will offer nature discovery programs and outings that are low-cost or free, and these often include owl prowls.
Before you go, check out the great owl info at the Audubon Society Owl Prowl, where you can type in your zip code, learn about wildlife commonly found in your area, and listen to bird calls (including owl hoots).
Collecting live butterflies is a wonderful way to get kids excited about nature—and all you need is a net and a ventilated vessel for carrying the winged creatures back home. Check the toy and seasonal aisles: Many stores stock butterfly habitats, lightweight, collapsible mesh containers that are perfect for carrying into the field and observing the catch.
To take the discovery one step further, get a few butterfly larvae and watch the magic of chrysalis right before your very eyes. The Painted Lady caterpillars available at Insect Lore are guaranteed to produce three to five beautiful butterflies, which you can then release into your flowerbed.
Here's a fun, healthful summer snack that the kids can help create, from the folks at OneCharmingParty.com: Scoop out balls of honeydew melon, watermelon, and cantaloupe, and thread onto wooden skewers for a refreshing treat. (Add chunks of strawberry and some blueberries for even more color and antioxidants; roll fruit in coconut or grated chocolate for texture and flavor appeal.) You can chill the skewers in the fridge, or even freeze them; just lay them on a waxed paper-covered tray in the freezer. Voila: a chunky and nutrient-rich alternative to a classic hot-weather treat.
Who says picnics have to be daytime affairs? Head out after dark, when it's cooler. Pack an after-dinner treat, such as cookies or s'mores made in advance in the microwave. The whole family can spread out on a big blanket and search for constellations in the night sky. Make it a regular event and start a moon journal, suggests Almeras. "You can observe and draw the different phases of the moon."
If you don't have time to squeeze in a weekend campground trip this summer (or even if you do), your gear can still get good use, right in the backyard. Kids love the novelty of sleeping in tents, so let 'em have at it. String up lights in the trees, or light tiki torches so it's not too scary out there but also feels like a special place. Break out the ghost stories, card games, and snacks. If you have a fire pit, roast hot dogs and marshmallows over it, and in the morning try making pancakes and sausage over a portable camp stove. The kids may be tempted to make runs to the house for toys and such, but you can encourage them to stick with the campout experience with some light competition: He or she who makes the fewest escapes back into "civilization" wins!
A kid who can't get enough of shovels, pails, and dump trucks may turn out to have a natural green thumb. That's what Francesca and Aaron Wolf banked on when they built a mini raised bed for their 2-year-old son, Elias. "Ever since his first beach trip at 11 months old Elias has loved digging holes in the sandbox with his shovels and toy excavators. And last summer he really enjoyed 'helping' me mulch our flower beds," Aaron says. So this year, the Wolfs included Elias in getting his own garden going, from building the box to shoveling compost to planting seeds and flowers.
"We put in flowers that he picked out at the farmer's market—marigolds seem to be a favorite—and a mix of vegetables that he'll hopefully enjoy eating: radishes, carrots, garden peas, and a cherry tomato," says Aaron. "We hope it will help him learn about nature and caring for plants, though what he is enjoying most is the constant supply of bugs and worms, and watering—himself and the garden."
Geocaching is a real-world, worldwide treasure hunt game that both kids and adults can play using a GPS device or smartphone. Geocachers bury small items, or caches, along with a logbook, that other geocachers can then find using coordinates and clues. Caches are often hidden in parks or in other public places—they can be anywhere! Learn more and get started at geocaching.com, where you can also post photos from a successful hunt. "The real fun of it is discovering new places and working together as a team," says Almeras. "It's more about the finding than what you find. And if you have older kids, it's something they can do with a group of friends too."
Your avid reader will love putting her own story on the page—and it's easier than you might think. "For the littlest ones, you can have them pick out pictures from a magazine or online. Cut them out or print them and paste them onto the pages, then have your child narrate a story to go along with the pictures," says Wendy Lawrence, a Nashville-based mom of two who blogs about children's books at The Family That Reads Together.
Or use photos of family members—or perhaps your kid's beloved animal friends, both stuffed and real—as a starting point for the story. Make it professional by using an online photo or bookmaking site like Blurb.com. Try a vacation memory album narrated by your child, or an original work incorporating his or her artwork. "That's a project an interested kid might spend weeks on, and when you are done, you have a gorgeous keepsake forever," Lawrence says.
This is a fun special event to throw for a group or to celebrate a birthday—and there's no schlepping of chairs, picnic baskets, and such from the car to the park. You'll need a projector (these can be rented), extension cords, and a projection screen, which can be purchased for about $50 to $90. Or just affix a bedsheet to the house siding or other flat outdoor surface. Encourage guests to bring picnic dinners, lawn chairs, and blankets. A busy preschooler can staff the "concession stand" (a cooler and basketful of small treats) if she's ready to sit still for a feature film. Or organize an intermission game of glow-in-the-dark Frisbee.
There's no end to the competitive possibilities involving a little H20, and you don't even need a pool. Think sponge tosses, sprinkler dance contests, water-gun target practice, and shooting baskets with water balloons. Gather a bunch of buckets and tubs and set up an obstacle course. This is a great activity to build kids' confidence, leadership, and creative ingenuity. Encourage them to take the creative lead on devising the games and playing judge.
And when you've had enough water—or you just don't savor the thought of your kid getting hit in the face by a water balloon? "Invite the neighborhood kids over, give them goggles, and arm each with a can of whipped cream," says Cyndi Finkle of Art Works Studio and Classroom. Then arm yourself with a camera, and prepare to be assaulted with screams of delight.