Photo: Kelsey Stewart

Ever since my 9-year-old son entered the world of grade school four years ago, I have come to prefer the phrase “Summer Break” rather than “Summer Vacation.” I now have a daughter who just finished kindergarten, and having two kids in grade school has solidified my sentiments: by June we just need a break, plain and simple. The idea of a proper vacation carries a lot of pressure and planning right at the exact time my household is ready for a change of pace (translation: we’re ready for no pace at all). All I want come summertime is a morning that doesn’t involve pulling my kids’ uniform shirts out of the hamper and giving them a quick sniff to see if they will suffice for one more day, or discovering a crumpled permission slip that was due three days ago along with a $5 donation and panicking as I ask my 5-year-old if her teacher accepts Venmo. When that bell rings on the last day of school, and the PTA emails and room parent text threads cease, I’m all like, “Toss those grimy backpacks in the trunk, kids! Let’s go put on our pajama pants and not take them off for the next 72 hours!”

That being said, by the end of July, with the heat intensifying, and my Facebook feed an endless scroll of families on seemingly amazing trips to foreign cities and beautiful campgrounds, I can start to feel a little bummed out about our grand summer of nothingness. But that’s when I just remind myself that kids don’t really require all that much to experience summer with joy and humor and newness. Family vacations are treasured and time-honored, but whether it’s financial constraints or inflexible work schedules, leaving town in the summer isn’t always an option. Here are some fun and inexpensive ways to make something out of your nothing summer:

1.) Treat Mundane Outings With Imagination

This might sound like a stretch, but my kids think IKEA is an amusement park. The giant two-story outdoor escalator we ride to the entrance is a ride all on its own. Once inside, play house throughout the store. In one staged kitchen be a posh metropolitan family living in a high rise apartment downtown making sushi for breakfast; in another living room be an artist family living a minimalist life in the desert and meditating on every ottoman in sight. Get goofy for the younger set, and get ironic for the older set. They all think it’s funny and ridiculous. Don’t forget to grab everyone a free measuring tape and mini pencil. Tiny interior designers are the absolute cutest. Yes, you will probably end up buying something before you exit. But you really needed that colander and folk art throw rug. Plus, the whole trip ends with $1 soft serve after you check out. A win for everyone!

2.) Game With Them

If I could run my home like a business I would absolutely employ a Manager of Screen Time. It’s a full-time job at this point. There are just too many screens to keep track of, and between timing it, rewarding with it, taking it away, and judging content I’m exhausted by all of it. But in the summer I not only try to let go as much as possible, I’ve also learned how much fun it is to grab a controller and jump right in with them. Kids love the opportunity to be the master of something while you’re the novice. We work together to accomplish levels or create new worlds, and we crack each other up while doing it. It’s also supremely adorable to hear your own kids encourage your bumbling efforts and congratulate you on a victory. And the best part is since it’s family time, there is no timer set.

3.) Try Something New (No, Really Do It This Time)

You know the botanic garden with free tours every Thursday that you’ve driven by a million times and always wanted to check out? Or that family cooking class you’ve always seen listed in the parks and recreation catalog and thought looked like fun? Pick something local and cheap and give it a whirl. As a family living in southern California, I’ve had the Grunion Run on our summer bucket list for a while, and just last week it felt so good to finally cross it off the list. We saw zero Grunion that night (more of a Grunion None than a Run), but we had a blast anyway. The simple fact that we were piling into our car to head to the beach way past bedtime was a thrilling adventure in and of itself. Your plans won’t always turn out as you hoped, but it’s a wonderful thing to show your kids that sometimes all the fun is in the trying.

4.) Make The Library Your BFF

With a budding reader on my hands and a kid who blows through comic books faster than I can keep up with, I knew our summer needed to be filled with books. We picked a day that would be our “Library Day” every week and signed up for the library’s summer reading program. Some libraries also host free events throughout the summer, from magic shows to animal encounters. Find the schedule and put it on your calendar. We go in each week, basking in the glory of the free air conditioning, get a little treat for turning in their reading list, and reload our bag with stacks of books. For as much as we have to say no to our kids’ requests for stuff in stores, the library feels incredibly freeing for everyone involved. I whip out my library card with an Oprah-like grandeur: “You get ten books! And you get ten books! And I get ten books!”

5.) Use Those Books For Activity Inspo

Fancy Nancy creates a beauty spa in her backyard? Heck yeah, you can do that. Grab some sheets, towels, nail polish, a bucket of water and some of those bath bombs you got three Christmases ago but never had the time to use. And Voila! Literary-inspired magic is happening right on your front lawn. Keep it up for as long as you like and invite friends and family over to “book an appointment.” Curious George tries to find the best smoothie recipe? You’re on it. Test out if cinnamon tastes good with kale and mango juice. I’m sure Dad will be more than happy to be the official taste-tester.

6.) Find Water, Any Water, Get In That Water

For the love of all that is sandy and sun-screened, if you have access to a body of water, be it lake or ocean or river or pond or pool, get yourself and your kids into that water as much as you can. Or bring the water to your own front door and make the best summer investment of your life in a cheap kiddie pool. If you live in an apartment complex see if other families want to go in on a larger kiddie pool with you. Grab some water guns and mermaid dolls at the dollar store, and you’ve made your own personal lagoon that will entertain and cool everyone off all summer long. And after the kids have gone to bed but the temperature is still in the 80s, pull up a patio chair, and soak your feet. Kiddie pool becomes Me Time pool. Eat the snacks you’ve been hiding from them all day, scroll through Pinterest or finally read that long form article, and relax as the stars come out or the city lights come on.

7.) Make Movie Mornings A Thing

We’ve all done the weekend pizza and movie nights sprinkled throughout the school year, but summer is the time to bend the norms and break from standards. Pick some days where you wake up in the morning and instead of making those beds, everyone drags their blankets and pillows out to the living room. Stay in your pajamas, keep the blinds closed and pick out a movie to watch. Trade in the popcorn and cherry Icees for donuts and frozen orange juice, and you’ve got yourself a Cinnamon Roll Cinema. Your kids will think you’re wild and crazy and cool, and you’ll have bought yourself two extra hours of sipping coffee on the couch. Summer weather is beautiful, but there’s a heck of a lot of daylight to kill and sometimes the sunshine can just wait.

8.) Document All Of It

Just because you didn’t leave town this summer doesn’t mean the time you spent together doesn’t deserve its own album. Take pictures of everything you do together this summer. Yes, even just the walks around the neighborhood or the trips to the grocery store. Then, after that first week of school begins, take all of those beautifully filtered Instagram posts and order a photo album online. No matter what you do during summer break it’s a time to pause and observe the many ways your kids are growing and changing — something that’s often difficult to reflect upon during the hustle of the school year. It’s also the perfect time for us parents to loosen up and flip the script. Capturing any of these moments so you can look back on them is always a worthy cause. Plus, your photo album of this year’s simple summer will make for great reading next summer when you’re all on a plane headed to the Caribbean for a week! What can I say, simple summers can lead to an awful lot of luxurious daydreaming too.

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