Summer starts out with the promise of long, lazy days, BBQs, and beach weekends—but before you know it, the school's-out thrill wears off of your kids and the chorus of "I'm bored" starts, and then you blink and it's time to start shopping for school supplies again. Where do those summer days go? To help make those few fleeting months feel extra-special, consider starting one (or more!) of these fun family traditions.
Forget what the calendar says—the real beginning of summer is the moment school is over for the year. Celebrate by hosting an end-of-school awards dinner, suggests Meg Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions. Cox points to one Colorado family as inspiration, for their fancy-awards-banquet take on the idea. There's a special dinner, sure, "but the main ritual is the presentation of special posters [the mom has] made for each child," she says. "The point is not to praise grades, but to applaud what each one learned and is still learning." The posters feature each kid's photo in the center with ribbons radiating out to photos of them engaged in different activities or keywords noting what they did that year. "After the meal, each child is given a letter [their mom wrote] about the year's highlights and the parents' pride in his or her hard work. And they have their pictures taken next to their special posters."
"For me, summer means vacation," says David Hoffman, author of The Sand Bucket List: 366 Things to Do With Your Kids. "So I love the idea of deciding where the family is going each year by throwing a dart at a map. There's a huge sense of fun that comes in the randomness of it all, and it gets everyone involved in both the selection and planning process." Worried the dart could land somewhere too remote, too expensive, or just too unappealing? Relax! "The key thing to remember here: There are no rules," Hoffman says. "So if you're not happy with where the dart lands, well, simply demand a do-over." You can limit the target to a certain geographical area as well, or agree that you have to stop at the targeted destination for only one day or night on the way to someplace else. "Or let each family member throw the dart, then plan a road trip that goes from one point to the next," Hoffman adds.
Every summer (or every other, if it's too overwhelming to organize annually), throw your own Olympics competition, Cox suggests. Invite far-flung family, friends, and neighbors, and face off in some friendly games. Bloomington, Minnesota, mom Jennifer Allen's family has been hosting an Olympics-style celebration for 39 years—since she was 2 years old! Now her two kids participate. "There's an opening ceremony where we parade with the Olympic theme and a closing ceremony with a costume party that has a different theme every year, and we dance the night away," she says. The teams play fun, made-up games and winners get real medals, "so they clank for bragging rights."
If you're like us, you hardly need a reminder to pick up your smartphone and snap some share-worthy pics, but summer vacation is the perfect time to do something a little out of the ordinary and go beyond the staid everyone-in-front-of-a-landmark photo. "Take the same shot—but do it with everyone wearing Groucho glasses," Hoffman says. "Or take a photo of your kid every year, but do it on the same day, in the same place, at the same time, in the same spot, and in the same pose—and if possible, wearing the same outfit, such as a T-shirt and jeans." You'll end up with a series of annual photos you can showcase as a collection to represent your family's journey.
Summer rainstorms can be the best, especially when the clouds finally let loose on a hot, humid day. "My 5-year-old and I go outside and do a rain dance and howl like wolves," says dad and blogger Brad Aronson. Wearing only their shorts, Aronson and his son march around in the falling rain, with his son mimicking his every move. "Then I throw him in the air and carry him on my shoulders," he says. "It's good for any warm, rainy day when you need something fun to do." (Obviously, do this only when there is no thunder or lighting.)
If a summer vacation is already an annual tradition for your family, consider creating vacation bucket lists to complete over a series of trips. "Plan travel—and it can often be just an overnight trip—that involves taking a different mode of transportation," Hoffman suggests. "Go by car, by train, by boat, by plane, by bike, by RV. Or make it an end goal over a number of summers to visit every state in the United States, checking them off as you do."
Summer should be about enjoying the outdoors and each other, so use the break to enact a mandatory tech timeout, suggests mom and blogger Seana Smith. Believe it or not, your kids might enjoy the break from technology. And if they (or, let's be honest, you) can't bear an entire summer sans screens, at least enact a tech-free vacation rule, as Smith does. The result: Her kids spent time reading, drawing, playing cards, and having fun together as a family (even the teenager!). Sounds pretty good, right?
Mary Susan Buhner, author of Mommy Magic: Tricks for Staying Sane in the Midst of Insanity, and her family look forward to their annual outdoor movie night every summer. "Spread out a blanket on your lawn, pop some popcorn, pick out your favorite family flick, and invite your friends and neighbors over," she says. "A white sheet is a great backdrop to project a movie on, and it can be hung on the side of your house, garage, or deck—or the side of a stairway indoors if you don't have a yard." Toss some blankets or sleeping bags on the ground or floor, add treats, and hit Play!
No birthdays or anything special to celebrate over the summer? No problem! Create your own. "On the summer solstice, make a plan with your family to stay up all night and watch the sunrise, or organize a 'tour de neighborhood' bike race," Hoffman says. "Or on the first day that the temperature reaches 100°, agree that all of you will jump into the swimming pool with your clothes on." Another option: Proclaim the 11th or 22nd of any month—a date that reads the same backward and forward—to be Backward Day, Hoffman says. "Eat dinner for breakfast, wear your clothes backwards, and even walk backwards."
You don't have to travel to be a tourist, so one summer weekend each year, pretend your family just arrived in town and do some sightseeing. "Visit historical sites, eat in the cool new restaurant, take a long bike ride through neighborhoods you've never visited," Cox says. "Take photos in front of landmarks, buy T-shirts, and send postcards." If it's in your budget, you could even spend the night at a local hotel. (Bonus if it has a pooll!)
Work together with your kids to turn a stretch of sidewalk—or even a concrete wall—into a chalk-drawn masterpiece every summer, Hoffman suggests. Deciding what to draw and where each year can be a group project. Be sure to take a photo of your creation each year to chronicle how your artistic abilities evolve.
Get in the patriotic spirit of Independence Day by helping your kids set up a lemonade-style stand for the holiday. Buhner's kids bake cookies and brownies, make lemonade, and even sell snow cones with red, white, and blue flavoring. "They gear up all week making and organizing their items, and set up shop at the end of our street on July 3rd for the weekend," she says. Whatever your family decides to make and sell, it's a fun activity to plan together—and you make a little cash, too. "You may decide to save the money they make from the stand and purchase something fun with it, or donate the proceeds to a local charity," Buhner says. "Either way, it's an easy, fun memory-maker for all ages."
Many libraries offer summer reading programs for kids to track all the books they read over the school break, and Cox recommends using this as a jumping-off point for your own tradition. "Go to the library every two weeks, and stop for an ice cream cone after every visit," she says. Not only are you encouraging them to read and participate in the program, you carve out time for a special mommy-kid date as well.
Starting when the kids were in preschool, Buhner's family enjoyed an annual summer camp-out in their backyard. "It is easy and loads of fun—with the bonus of having an indoor bathroom if needed!" she says. "Pitch a tent, set up sleeping bags, and make yummy s'mores over a fire pit. Flashlight tag in the dark and campfire stories will be remembered for years to come." No yard? Have a camp-in! "Pop a tent in your family room for a weekend," Buhner suggests. "This is actually a perfect way to introduce camping to younger kids—it's less scary and it's bug-free!"