7 Secrets of Fun Families

Simple, silly, and meaningful ways families across the country make everyday extra-special.

Family Having Fun on Camping Trip
Photo: Erin Kunkel

What's that saying about raising a family?

The days are long, but the years are short. That's the carpe diem sentiment we heard from families when we asked them to weigh in with favorite ideas for packing family life full of as much joy as possible. From hundreds of responses, we selected the best and organized them into seven categories. As you'll see, the ideas are simple (Make a list of activities! Draw on the windows!), but the memories created are lasting.

1. They plan together for adventure.

Defeating inertia is easier when you've done a bit of preparation. These families understand that having a game plan for fun is key to ensuring that special excursions and activities don't get put off for "someday."

  • Encouraging Outings: The Linduski family keeps an inspirational bulletin board in the entryway of their Eau Claire, Wisconsin, home, and when one of them spots an article on a can't-miss destination, he tears it out and pins it up. "There are a few bigger trips we want to take, like a trip to see redwood trees in California," explains mom Toni. "But most of the ideas are afternoon excursions: a zip line tour, a visit to a pumpkin patch, or a hike to a waterfall."
  • Seasonal Must-Dos: Every few months, the Carter kids—Emily, 11, Jasper, 8, and Natalie, 5—sit down with their mom, Amy, and brain- storm a list of the activities they love. Spring items, for example, might include planting flowers, going on a scavenger hunt, and exploring five unfamiliar parks. The Franklin, Indiana, family then checks off the activities as they do them. "I tend to get wrapped up in the necessities of life," Amy explains. "The lists make sure we plan some fun every week."
  • Letting Chance Decide: The Sanders family of Elk Grove, California, works together to fill three grab bags with spur-of-the-moment outing ideas written on index cards. The simplest activities, such as a picnic in the park, go in one bag; more time-consuming or costly ones, such as a museum visit, go in another; and the most involved activities, such as a trip to an amusement park, go in a third. When they have free time and funds, the family draws a card from the right bag. There's only one rule, explains mom Barbara: "Whatever that card says, we do."
family fun at the beach

2. They turn their home into fun zones.

You don't have to attach a slide to your stairway (though one of our readers did!), but making room for games, creativity, and plain, old hanging out can make a house a home.

  • Graffiti Artists: Without handing your kids spray paint, you can still give them freedom to color their world. For Kelly Maver, this means keeping a jar of dry-erase markers on the kitchen window seat so that her daughters can use them on the windows: "My 9-year-old practices her spelling and makes murals for every season, and my 2-year-old pretends to write words," explains the Hewitt, New Jersey, mom, before assuring us, "It wipes right off!"
  • DIY Turf: The Axlers of Madison, New Jersey, give "home team" a whole new meaning by making a sports arena of their basement. Bases and a home plate, yard lines, or goals (depending on the season) are marked on the green carpet with masking tape. Jordan, age 7, and Becca, 4, then get their game on with Wiffle bats or soft plastic balls. Meanwhile, in Dover, Ohio, the Warther family mows part of their lawn extra-close to make a golf green: "We line holes with sunken soup cans and add bike-flag markers. The kids and their friends love to practice their chipping and putting."
  • Creating a Kid Cave: Kids and hidey holes are a match made in heaven. That's what Carolyn Halliburton in Plano, Texas, was thinking when she turned an under-stairs closet into a hideout. The family took out some shelves, painted the walls blue and silver (they're Dallas Cowboys fans), and hung up dry-erase boards. "We also hung a curtain in the entrance to make it more secret," says Carolyn. Sons Taylor, age 10, and Andrew, 8, love to read, play, and draw in there—and hide out with friends, of course.

3. They celebrate the little things.

Life's too short to save all the fun for birthdays and big holidays, say these families, so they look for excuses to add a dose of silliness to otherwise ordinary weeks. The reason isn't important; what matters is reveling in togetherness.

  • Feting the Everyday (And the Off-the-Wall): Heather Crosby of Parker, Colorado, observes what she calls "odd holidays" with her 8-year-old and her 6-year-old twins. "I'll slip pieces of white chocolate into their lunches on National White Chocolate Day, and we've played Monopoly on Play Monopoly Day. My kids were not too fond of National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, though!" The Thomas family of Willard, North Carolina, turns wacky holidays into themed dinners, complete with props and costumes. They celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day, Fairy Day, and the family favorite, Cave Night. "We all dress like cavemen, and we serve dinosaur bones, aka ribs." (Tip: For a list of these special days, Google "Everyday Holidays.")
  • Keeping It in the Family: The Smiths of Poway, California, love to entertain...themselves. "Every couple of months, we like to host little parties where we are the only guests," explains mom Joannie. The three kids, ages 9, 13, and 17, help pick an event—the Super Bowl, the Oscars, or simply the release of a much-anticipated movie—then they decide on the food (fun appetizers are a favorite) and deck themselves out in festive clothing. "We get to spend good, quality time with each other," Joannie says, "and celebrate us as a family."

4. They narrow the gap between playing and learning.

How do you expand children's minds? By increasing the fun! These families do that by making time for curiosity and exploration.

  • Family Book Club: The Delgados of Edcouch, Texas, love to read. The family chooses a book together, reads a chapter aloud during the day, and discusses it over dinner. To make their book club even more rewarding, they give themselves a treat (a movie, say, or an ice- cream outing) when they finish a book. Recently, they've read the Harry Potter series (a favorite), The Hunger Games, and mom Laura's choice, Little Women.
  • Alphabet Party: At the Pincock family's weekly alphabet-themed celebrations, P is for party. Also, pink clothes, pizza and pears for lunch, Peter Pan and popcorn, and playing in the playroom. Every letter gets its own occasion to shine. "The parties kept my preschooler happy and busy during the long winter months," explains Canton, Michigan, mom Amy. "We made it through all 26 letters by the time spring came!"
  • Messy Exploration: Allison Beard of Brighton, Colorado, believes giving kids the freedom to make a mess also gives them license to learn. That's why she helps her son, 5-year-old Griffin, get up to some crazy concocting at a backyard science lab in fair weather. When conditions are less favorable, the dining table, covered with a shower curtain, stands in. "We set him up with a variety of nontoxic things he can mix together to see what happens," Allison explains. Ingredients include sugar, salt, cornstarch, baking soda, vinegar, water, and food coloring. Ice-cube trays or muffin tins are perfect for mixing, and craft sticks for stirring. A lab coat (and an evil-scientist laugh) completes the scene.

5. They fill their lives with sweet surprises

Kids thrive on routines, but it's often the unexpected joys that they truly treasure. These parents know how to catch their gang happily off guard -- and make the kinds of memories that last forever.

  • Keeping Them Guessing: Weekend-afternoon Mystery Trips started when Nikki Price was a girl and her mother would put the kids in the car without telling them where they were going. Now she carries on the tradition with her children, Zachary, age 8, and Rachel, 4, in Plainfield, Illinois. "We'll tell them how they need to dress and if they need to bring anything, but that's it," says Nikki. "The anticipation is a lot of fun, and my husband and I get a kick out of their guesses." A park? The zoo? It's a mystery—at least until they get there.
  • Breaking the Rules: When it's lights out, it's time to sleep, right? Not if you're the three McKee kids in Katy, Texas. "I get everyone to bed like normal," their mom, Mandy, explains, "then, about 10 minutes later, I blast music throughout the house! Everyone gets up, and we go get ice cream with the kids in their PJs. They expect it every summer, but they never know exactly when it's coming."
  • Surprising Others: Wacky stuff is plenty fun at home, but foisting it on an unsuspecting public really ups the ante. For example, Wave Day. You don't know about Wave Day? Oh, right, that's because the Johnson family of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, made it up. On Wave Day, mom Rebecca, Gwyneth, age 14, and Jessica, 10, wave to every single person they can. "It's amazing to my girls that such a simple act can make a person's day."

6. They find the silver lining.

Fun is really a state of mind, as these look-on-the-bright-side families remind us. With a little creative thinking, they banish disappointment and turn it into delight.

  • A Can-Do Attitude: When a storm kept the Barbee family from the state fair, they decided to bring the fair to them. "I gave everyone an hour to make something to submit as an entry to the Family Fair," says Sonnet, an Idaho Falls, Idaho, mother of four. "We had artwork, a coin collection, homemade cookies, and a flower arrangement, and I awarded prizes to everyone." They competed in a trampoline-trick rodeo and a watermelon-eating contest. "The kids had so much fun that we forgot that we missed out on the real state fair."
  • Let Them Eat Cake (or Pie): When kids get the blues, distraction can be the best remedy. While her husband is away on business, Celi Back mixes it up so that the six kids, ages 9 months to 12, don't miss him as much. They camp out in the yard, make a construction paper "Welcome Home" sign, and, naturally, eat pie for dinner. "Once, we had spaghetti pie, then chocolate pie for dessert, and we ate it all on the floor, picnic-style," says the Tempe, Arizona, mom.

7. They make work feel like play.

These families skip the nagging and tackle household chores with a party spirit. It's got to get done, so it might as well be fun.

  • Sorting It Out: "Laundry party!" It's not your usual call to merrymaking, but that's what Janet Mongilio yells to her family when there's a clean wash to be sorted in their Parkersburg, West Virginia, home. "All four of us run to the bedroom, dump the baskets of clothes on the bed, and start sorting them—and throwing them at each other." (Picture a washday version of a food fight.) Chaos! Mayhem! And, in the end, a neat pile of folded clothes for everyone.
  • Harnessing the Competitive Spirit: When it comes to doing boring tasks, the Button family of Fayetteville, Arkansas, finds that a beat-the-clock contest gets everybody motivated. (Could that be because they've got two boys, ages 9 and 12, in the house?) "We set the timer, and we attempt, as a family, to beat our own time unloading the dishwasher, getting the trash out, or doing any one chore together," explains mom Kristi. The catch: "The dishes have to get put away in the right place and unbroken."
  • Hunting for a Clean Room: To bolster her kids' enthusiasm for tidying up, Carol Vargas of Kennesaw, Georgia, turns it into a rousing scavenger hunt. She hides clues (drawings or objects in small ziplock bags) in the clutter for her cleaning kids to find. The hints help the kids figure out their reward for completing the task. "It could be something as simple as a special lunch of fave foods, a chance to pick a toy out of our prize box, or a visit to the local park."
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