Got kids? Got summer? Got no do-re-mi? As it happens, I’m an expert in all three of these conditions. So, as the weeks of vacation spread out before us and I contemplate how much longer I can bear to listen to my sons doing what they think is an appropriate way to spend the day, I offer up this list of actual doable activities for the broke, low-energy parent with a houseful of restless kids of various ages.
1. Mud painting. I’m probably revealing too much about my standard of living here, but I just don’t care when my kids mix big batches of mud in the driveway and smear it on the van and the shed. Then they take the hose and wash it all off. Then they get it all muddy again. Then they get bored and I find them rolling around on the couch, so I make them go outside it and hose it all off again.
2. A slightly more palatable activity: water painting (get house paint brushes from the dollar store). Same concept as above, just don’t add dirt. On a hot day, the “paintings” will evaporate quickly, which little kids find fascinating.
3. Weed tours. This one turns parental sloth into pure childhood gold. If your grass is a little higher than you’d like (read: your children can hide from you simply by standing out in the yard and staying still), DON’T CUT IT ALL DOWN. Instead, mow a tricky, windy trail looping through the yard. This is the poor man’s version of corn mazes, and your kids will love it.
4. Okay, moms, this one is difficult: This summer, think hard about whether your kids are old enough to spend some time on their own. If necessary, drive them to a safe part of town with a few bucks and a cell phone, give them a few stern lectures, and let them be on their own for a while. (Obviously, this depends on where you live and what kind of kids you have, and may not be doable in your area; but it’s easy to get carried away with safety, and it really is good for kids to be unsupervised.)
5. Poker night. Movie night is fun, but we have the problem of either watching something so stupid that the adults can’t tolerate it, or watching something so good that the adults can’t tolerate the kids’ chatter and squirming. So we’re teaching them to play poker. Be prepared for the most obnoxious child to get an unbelievable lucky streak. That’s just how it goes.
6. Scrap wood, hammer, box of nails. There is only a limited amount of harm they can do to themselves, and you may be surprised at—well, I was going to say “at what they come up with,” but more likely you’ll be surprised at how proud they are of the weird little wobbly doodads they spend all afternoon making. Practice this phrase: “Wow, look at THAT! TELL me about what you made!” Also: “That contusion makes you look just like Indiana Jones. Here’s some ice.”
7. Firepit. A project so easy, even I could do it! You just dig down until you hit bare dirt, and then make a ring around it with rocks. Little kids are thrilled to throw in grass and toast marshmallows, older kids enjoy the edgy thrill of staying up past bedtime outdoors, and adults can bring out a bottle of wine.
8. Story time for teenagers when the little ones are in bed. People sometimes forget to read to older kids, but it’s an irreplacable way to spend time with kids of a tricky age while passing along some precious ideas. Make sure the kids like the book, though—you don’t want this to be summer school, but family time. (Leave book suggestions in the comments!)
9. Tie dyeing. I actually only wrote this one down because I promised the kids we would this summer, and now it’s in writing, so I really have to do it. When I was little, tie dyeing involved ruining several of your mother’s pots with RIT powder and filling the air with a horrible stench, but I think they’ve recently come up with a tidy, easy, quick way to do it. Right? Right?
10. Okay, the Fourth of July is over, you ate and drank moderately, no one ended up in the burn clinic, and you suddenly realized that the person who complains about those damn inconsiderate neighbors making all that noise when decent people are trying to get some sleep . . . is you. How did this happen? You used to be cool, and now you wear black socks with your sandals and kvetch about how much dietary fiber you need. For the sake of your kids, for your own sake, and for the sake of uncomfortably rational adults everywhere, go ahead and make some steel wool fireworks.
Or, failing that, a miniature hydrogen bomb (especially if you’re the Wile E. Coyote type). One way or another, it will be a summer to remember.