Though it can be challenging to find time to connect regularly as a family in today's fast-paced world, doing so is important. Studies reveal that family time can boost kids' self-esteem, enhance social development, and create strong relational bonds. Here are 10 new ideas for outdoor and indoor activities with the kids that will create special memories.
Geocaching is a real-world outdoor treasure hunt where the goal is to find caches (or containers) filled with objects that other people have hidden. Check out Geocaching.com, the official website, to find cache locations near you. Then use your smartphones (most have GPS tracking) to track the treasures, often stashed behind rocks, in the hollow of a tree, or under a bench. The caches hold trinkets and logbooks for the finders to document when they made the discovery and where they're from. They should always be put back.
"It's an opportunity to go exploring wherever we are," says Jessie Madison, whose family enjoys geocaching when hiking or out for a walk. For her 4-year-old son, "it gives the hike more purpose. It gives him something to focus on and be excited about." She adds, "If you take a trinket from the cache, you have to add one in its place. It teaches kids about giving—not just receiving." You can even hide your own treasure in different locations for others to find.
What could be more exhilarating than soaring through the sky with fields and forests beneath you and the wind carrying you through the atmosphere? Float on the breeze while viewing the world from a whole new vantage point. Hot-air balloon rides are available in every state, bringing together the beauty of nature and love of adventure while honoring the early days of flight technology. Bring along a topographical map of the area and a compass to better identify landmarks and regions below. You can even create an aerial scrapbook of your journey by taking photographs from mid-air. This is an experience you won't forget. Go to HotAirBallooning.com to learn about ballooning and find a ride near you with minimum age requirements.
Enjoy an excursion on the water followed by a picnic. Many recreational and outdoor stores rent out kayaks or canoes by the hour or day. Your local park may also have paddleboats. Pack a lunch and set out on an adventure to a nearby island, beach, or park, or along the banks of a nearby river. Make this a group outing by inviting other families and having paddle races on the water. Barb Anderson and her husband regularly enjoy a break from the hustle and bustle of Boston by canoeing with their 7- and 9-year-olds along the Charles River or to the nearby Harbor Islands, where they have a picnic lunch and spend the night at a campsite. It's an opportunity to enjoy being together while leaving the baggage of daily life behind, Barb says. "It's about having everything that you need, and needing only what you have."
What's better than eating apple pies or cranberry sauce? Picking your own fruit! Take the family to a pick-your-own farm that offers seasonal fruits such as pumpkin, apples, strawberries, and blueberries. Then challenge each other to plan a menu that incorporates your pickings as the essential ingredient. For example, after a day at the pumpkin patch, pure soup as an appetizer, sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds over a salad or meat dish, and have pie to end the meal. My own family has a tradition of canoeing to cranberry bogs each November, picking our own cranberries, and then making a sauce for Thanksgiving dinner. Meals taste so much better when you work together to create them from start to finish.
Watch as liquid mixture transforms into solid ice cream before your eyes. All you need is sugar, milk, vanilla (or any flavoring of your choice), ice, salt, a quart-size food-storage bag, and a gallon-size plastic bag. First, mix one tablespoon of sugar, one cup of milk, and half a teaspoon of vanilla in a bowl. This will make about one scoop. Transfer the contents to the quart-size bag and seal. Then fill the gallon-size bag with two quarts of crushed ice and 6 tablespoons of rock salt (or coarse salt). The rock salt will keep the ice from melting.
Make sure both bags are completely sealed. Place the quart-size bag inside the gallon-size bag. Shake for about 10-15 minutes, making sure the contents of the two bags do not mix. The bags will get very cold, so use gloves or a towel to hold them. This hands-on activity will show how matter changes state from liquid to solid and then, as the final, tasty product drips down your chin, back to liquid again.
Take the family to a do-it-yourself pottery-painting studio for all ages. Most studios offer premade pottery (such as plates, mugs, tiles, frames, bowls, or vases) in a variety of sizes that you can choose from, as well as pottery paints and brushes. You start off by picking the ceramic piece you'd like to decorate, then you choose colors and designs. You don't need to be Picasso —decorate freehand or use stencils, shapes, sponges, even your handprint.
The studio will fire and glaze the pieces for you, and most are ready for pickup within a week. Many studios host a wide range of family events—from pottery parties to story-time painting. You can even make an adorable hand- or footprint of your infant. Some places let children paint for free when accompanied by their moms or offer a discount for families painting together on certain days. Making art encourages creativity and provides a memento of the shared fun.
It's easy to overlook the opportunities right where you live. Sightseeing is often a must when you're traveling, but checking out the history of the place you live or grew up can also be an educational and eye-opening experience. Pretend you are a tourist arriving in your town for the first time, contact your local chamber of commerce or National Historic Society, and see all that your area has to offer. Tour the most historic buildings, discover if any battles were fought where you're standing, check out monuments and statues, or visit a cemetery to search for the oldest tombstones. Every place has its own legends and history. Discovering what makes your town special can create a meaningful connection to the spot your family calls home.
Connect with your surroundings in a new way by taking a guided night hike. Contact your local Audubon Society or nature center about organized hikes (you won't need to pack or bring anything unless you're told by a guide or ranger), plus other family events that may include telescope viewing. The same trail during the day becomes a completely different experience after the sun sets. Listen to the calls of nocturnal wildlife, sharpen and engage your senses, and identify constellations in the sky. Bring along some wintergreen-flavored Life Savers, chew them with an open mouth, and watch as sugars and wintergreen oil combine to create flashes of light! This sparkly phenomenon, known as triboluminescence, can only be seen in the dark.
Spend the day checking out yard sales and determine how to get the most bang for your buck. Make a competition to see who can get the most, the strangest, or the largest and smallest items. This is a favorite pastime for the Pecoriello family of New York City. "We've done it in Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, and Connecticut," says Abby Pecoriello, mother of two daughters and author of Crafty Mama: Makes 49 Fast, Fabulous, Foolproof (Baby & Toddler) Projects. Visit a website like YardSaleSearch.com to find the nearest sales.
"We figure out a route using MapQuest or Google maps, and then we set out to find stuff. The girls get one to three dollars, depending on how many we go to, and see how far they can stretch the cash." From 4-foot light-up gumball machines to 24-carat gold rings, the Pecoriellos never know what treasures they'll happen upon or who will win. You get to meet new people while teaching your kids the value of a dollar.
You don't need to wait for summer weather to enjoy splashing in the waves. When the winter months descend on the woods in New Hampshire, Ken Mitchell and his family head to an indoor water park like Kahuna Laguna. "There's something fun about looking out a large window when it's snowing and it's 20 degrees while you're sliding down a waterslide in 75-degree bliss," says Ken. Big kids can zoom through giant high-speed waterslides or play water sports, while smaller kids can wade in shallow pools made just for them. These parks are scattered throughout the northern region, bringing the tropics to a cold January day near you.
Corinne Schuman is a mother and licensed mental health counselor in Washington, D.C.