The Summertime Guide to Keeping Kids Entertained at Home
Here’s your completely achievable, totally affordable game plan for keeping the kids happily busy this summer—right at home.
If sending the kids to camp isn’t in the cards this year, you can still give them a summer that’s full of excitement and surprises. While the free-range 1980s summer probably went the way of the VCR for a reason, there is a happy medium between unstructured mayhem and an overpacked roster of team-building exercises, capture the flag, and color-war chants. Think of this as Camp Dad or Camp Mom—or even Camp Grandma and Grandpa—depending on what your family setup might be. It’s entirely doable to create a fun-filled, memory-making experience for your kids at home. The key to success, according to parents who’ve done it, is all in the planning.
Make a Bucket List
Your first task as camp director: Ask yourself what your kids are into, and then ask them the same question. “Sit down together and come up with a list of things that they think would be fun to do and goals that you want to achieve with them,” says Sharon Rowley, of Bedford, New York, who blogs at MomOf6.com and has been running what she refers to as “Camp Rowley” in one form or another ever since the oldest of her half dozen offspring, who’s now in college, was in kindergarten. “Maybe this is the summer that they want to learn to tie their own shoes or ride a bike without training wheels or go camping. I always asked, ‘If you had to wear a T-shirt on the first day of school that showed the best thing you did all summer, what would be on that shirt?’”
Stick to a Schedule
There’s something to be said for a lazy summer afternoon, but more often than not, when you’ve got a house full of kids, a day devoid of plans turns into a day full of sibling squabbles and parental clock-watching. “If you wake up and are like, ‘So, what do you want to do today?’ it’s going to be horrible,” says Stacey Wallenstein, founder of The Mint Chip Mama blog and a Long Island, New York, mom of three whose enthusiasm for stay-at-home camp is so great that last year, she made a Camp Wallenstein banner for her yard with matching shirts for the kids. She tries to set plans for almost every day before the school year ends and even prints a camp calendar.
Meanwhile, Saren Loosli, mom of five and an at-home-camp veteran in Ogden, Utah, who founded PowerOfFamilies.com, often plans week by week but assigns a theme to each day to make slotting in bucket-list items easier. “We had Make It Monday, when we focused on crafts; Take a Trip Tuesday, when we’d go on walks or other outings; Wet Wednesday, which was all about water play; Thinking Thursday, when the kids researched topics they were interested in and then gave little presentations; and Fun Friday, when we’d do something from our bucket list.” Alliteration, of course, is not required.
It’s just not summer camp without old-school crafts like ice-pop-stick God’s eyes and lanyard key chains. Thanks to Pinterest, there’s no shortage of inspiration, and when it comes to stocking up on supplies, says Jodi Levine, the crafter behind the Super Make It blog, it’s more about what you save than what you buy. “Stockpile toilet-paper tubes, tissue boxes, and egg crates,” she says. “There are so many things you can make with the cardboard you normally toss.” She recommends rounding out your stash with glue dots (which are neater than glue sticks), tape, pom-poms, pipe cleaners, and craft paint. (Liquid acrylic works best on cardboard but can stain clothes, so tempera is best for the littlest artists.) Another great tip: Head outside for messy projects—potato printing, papier-mâché, tie-dyeing—and save tidier diversions (like those lanyards) for rainy-day fun.
Trick Out Your Yard
Ideally, you want to make sure that your kids spend most of their at-home time outside rather than indoors climbing the walls (or, if they’re preschoolers, scribbling on them). A few new outdoor toys, introduced over the course of the summer, are key to backyard bliss. “I buy something crazy for my yard every summer, like a new type of swing or a lawn game such as a giant version of Connect 4,” says Wallenstein, who has also staged obstacle courses in the yard. “It’s about being creative using things we already have—throwing a Frisbee, using a Hula-Hoop, jumping rope, running around cones, or balancing a Ping-Pong ball on a spoon. Some challenges, like crab walking, army crawling, or three-legged racing, don’t require equipment but are bound to burn off tons of energy and leave kids tuckered out by bedtime.
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Devise a Meal Plan
If you make lunch a part of the festivities, it won’t become a last-minute scramble. Celebrity chef and mom of four Melissa d’Arabian is a big believer in creating buffets around a theme, such as Italian Day, which consists simply of making spaghetti and doing a craft, like painting a flag. Or set out a lunch-meat platter, coleslaw, and baked beans and call it Western Day. “The secret is that a theme doesn’t need to be all that crazy of a departure from regular lunch food to be fun,” she explains. A picnic in the backyard can feel out of the ordinary too. “Even better: Have a picnic in the front yard so you can holler hello to people who pass by,” she adds. Of course, it wouldn’t be summer camp without a treat. Go ahead and let the kids get in on the action of whipping it up, says d’Arabian. One fun idea: Freeze bananas on sticks, and dip them into 1 to 2 cups melted chocolate chips mixed with 1 teaspoon coconut oil. Then have kids roll the chocolate-covered bananas in whatever toppings strike their fancy—sprinkles, chopped nuts, chopped toffee bars or peanut butter cups, shredded coconut, or Oreo crumbs.
Squeeze in Screens
Perhaps the biggest challenge of having kids at home these days is tearing them away from their ever-present screens. The best strategy for her family, says Loosli, was to build some TV or video-game time into the schedule and keep the kids busy enough the rest of the day that they weren’t asking for more. “We don’t want screens to be this tantalizing forbidden fruit,” she says. “For us it’s more like, you can totally watch a show, but we have to do all this other super-fun stuff first. In the end they don’t have that much time for it.” Wallenstein likes to make screen time an event by setting up a movie projector in the living room. “We feel it’s important to educate our kids on all the movies of the ’80s and ’90s that we watched when we were growing up, as well as classic musicals like The Wizard of Oz and The Music Man. It’s funny to watch them now through the eyes of a parent.”
Explore the Wild
“Your neighborhood is probably bursting with activities that’ll get kids excited about nature, and you don’t have to leave your yard to do most of them,” says Liz Lee Heinecke, mom of three and author of Outdoor Science Lab for Kids. Children can study their local flora, she says, by wrapping a piece of duct tape around their wrist, sticky side out, and going on a nature hunt. They can adhere leaves and flowers they find interesting onto their “bracelet.” As for fauna, Heinecke has a trick for making earthworms magically appear: Mix 1 gallon water with 1/3 cup dried mustard in a container (be careful not to splash in eyes) and pour half the mixture over a square-foot area of soil. Wait a few minutes and observe as the worms emerge. Add the other half of the mustard water to the same area to bring more worms to the surface.
Prepare to Get Soaked
When temperatures get extreme, cooling off under a sprinkler can turn the day around. “We buy a new water item each year—the H20GO! Sketching Blobz Sprinkler Splash Pad was a big hit,” says Wallenstein of the toy that’s part sprinkler, part coloring mat. Rowley recommends Slip ’n Slide, “silly” sprinklers (“like the ones that have octopus legs”), and for older kids, a giant inflatable waterslide. “Water play is a sanity saver when the kids have had enough,” she says. “My kids would spend hours on their blow-up slide.”
Fun Up a Rainy Day
Foul weather doesn’t mean Camp Dad closes for the day. “We played cards like crazy eights and board games—Catan and escape-room games are faves,” says Rowley. Megan Tenney, a blogger at ShapingUpToBeAMom.com, mom of four, and full-time traveler who has held a summer camp with a friend for their kids, reaches for the “I’m bored” jar. “Have each kid write an activity on a strip of paper, stuff the slips into a jar, and have someone randomly pull one out when they need help deciding what to do next,” she says. She has also been known to break out toothpicks and a bag of mini marshmallows to see who can build the tallest or most wild structure.
Put On a Show
It’s like a game of pretend on steroids. “We’ve read a book together, and the kids decide who should play which part, come up with costumes, and act it out,” says Loosli. The process doesn’t have to be that structured. Encourage kids to improvise and riff on a story. “Go for funny stuff—it doesn’t have to make sense. The important thing is to accept all ideas,” says Miriam Peskowitz, mom of two and coauthor of The Daring Book for Girls.
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Kick it Old-School
Flash back to the low-tech activities you enjoyed growing up. “My kids are fans of catch,” says Peskowitz. To mix it up, combine catch and storytelling: “One person starts—‘In the beginning, Marisa saw a sunset ...’—and every time the ball changes hands, that person adds a sentence and throws the ball to the next person,” says Peskowitz. Or try shadow tag, best played late in the day; you tag someone by stepping in her shadow. Another idea: “Teach kids call-and-repeat camp songs with hand motions,” says Tenney. “I Met a Bear” is a classic.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's July 2020 issue as “Day Camp in Your Own Backyard.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here