by Cindy Richards, Lorien Menhennett and Susy Schultz
It’s easy to let the pressures of day-to-day living (and parenting) sap your energy and leave you with little time for fun. But kids just wanna have fun—and we want to have fun with them.
Sure, if you spend a fortune and take the kids for a week at Disney World, they’ll remember it. But making memories doesn’t have to break the bank. Spending an afternoon wandering through a forest preserve or playing catch in the front yard can be just as memorable and a lot more affordable.
Here are our ideas for building a year’s worth of memories with your kids.
Take a walk
This is a great way to connect with kids. Older kids might open up and talk, while younger children will love to share their discoveries, whether it’s a busy ant hill in the summer or a vibrant red leaf in the fall.
Let the kids take the lead and decide where to walk and what to do or say. Be on the lookout for things you can discover together. Search for rabbit tracks in the snow, look for budding bulbs in the spring, pick flowers in the summer or collect a handful of leaves in the fall.
When you get home, preserve the experience. Have the kids draw a picture of the tracks they found. Put the flowers in a vase. Press the leaves between sheets of wax paper and put them in a memory book. Be sure to add a date and a line or two about where you collected the leaves and what you talked about that day.
Watch a movie
Don’t just pop in a video or DVD, make it an experience. Set up a home theater in the family room by lining up the chairs in front of the TV, making a bunch of popcorn and passing out the drinks.
Or give the kids a "flick and float" by setting up a TV and DVD player in the yard alongside the wading pool.
Be sure to check your local park district for summer movies in the park. It’s a great experience that combines many kid faves—a movie, a picnic, the outdoors and the chance to run around and make noise while the movie plays.
Or make Friday night family movie night. Order a pizza for dinner and pop in the video. It can be a movie you all agree on, or you can take turns choosing the flick. While that may mean your teenager may one day force you to sit through "Friday the 13th," it also means you can get your kids to watch "Singin’ in the Rain."
Have a picnic
Kids love the adventure of spreading a blanket, pulling the food out of a basket and settling in to eat. And just because it’s below zero outside is no reason to give up picnics—spread the blanket on the living room floor.
When the weather’s warm, head for a local park, forest preserve or the lake. After lunch, you and your kids can burn off some energy with a game of soccer or beach Frisbee.
This is another all-seasons activity. When the weather is too cold for an outdoor camping trip (like now), set up a family-size tent in the living room, make a fire in the fireplace and munch on s’mores. Or go low-tech and simply pile everyone’s sleeping bag in the living room and tell stories by flashlight.
In the summer, head for Indiana Dunes, Starved Rock or another nearby preserve. After you set up the tent, sneak in some fun learning with a family hike or a trip to the visitor’s center. If the park is part of the National Park Service, chances are it offers a junior ranger program. Sign up your kids and they’ll get a cool patch for completing a booklet of activities. When you get home, sew the patch onto a jacket or backpack as a reminder of the fun you had together.
This can be as simple as planting a bean seed in a paper cup and placing it on the window sill to teach children that plants need water and light to live. Or it can be as complicated as making your own compost and planting an elaborate flower garden.
While you’re sharing the wonder of growing things with your kids, take them to the produce section of a grocery and let them choose a new fruit or vegetable they’ve never tasted before. It’s a great way to get them to try new things.
Or in the summer, get them closer to the source of the food they eat by taking them to the local farmer’s market where they can talk to the farmers who grow their food and taste the difference between store-bought and organically grown goods.
Even better, take them out to pick their own strawberries, blueberries, apples or other fruit. Check the summer issue of Chicago Parent Going Places, due out in May, for a listing of local u-pick farms.
This is an unplanned adventure. Yes, you could wake up one day and decide to play hooky from work and school, which adds to the adventure, but it’s not necessary. The idea is to teach kids that it’s fun to be open to new things.
Go to the children’s area at the library, stand in front of a shelf, close your eyes and pick a book. Then cuddle with your kids in the reading nook and read it.
Go to the local thrift store, see how many fun clothes you can buy for $10, then go home and play dress-up.
Have a backyard carnival. Let the kids figure out the games then head to a dollar store, buy some prizes and invite the neighborhood kids over to play.
Discover a new museum or nature center. The Chicago area is home to a host of small (often free) museums and nature centers that get lost in the shadow of the major attractions downtown. Some of our favorites include Volo Bog in Ingleside, (815) 344-1294; the SciTech Hands On Museum in Aurora, (630) 859-3434; the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, (312) 746-5100; and the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn, (708) 423-6709.
Running around outside (or in a gym) is fun—and great exercise. And there are plenty of choices: football, basketball, soccer, Wiffle ball ... the list goes on. This year, think about trying a new sport with your kids. Learn the rules and practice the basic moves together, then catch a live game in the Chicago area. Check Chicago Parent Going Places or www.chicagoparent.com for a list of seasonal sports options. If conventional sports don’t appeal to your kids (or you), badminton and croquet are also good for a backyard blast.
Cook up a craft
You can easily empty your wallet on craft supplies and how-to books. But there are plenty of activities that make use of what’s already in your kitchen (with a few inexpensive extras).
Play-Doh is a favorite with all ages. And you and your kids can easily whip it up on the stove and tint it a favorite color for days of fun playtime. All you need is flour, salt, cream of tartar, vegetable oil, water and food coloring. Visit www.kidsturncentral.com/crafts/craftrecipes.htm for a recipe. The Web site also has recipes for Silly Putty, goop and face paint. You can buy all these things, of course, but half the fun is making them together.
If your kids love detective stories, cook up some invisible ink together and write each other secret messages. Younger kids can draw pictures. Find a recipe at http://chemistry.about.com/cs/howtos/ht/invisibleink1.htm.
Create a tradition
The key here is continuity. Maybe your tradition will be going out to breakfast on Sunday morning as a family, or a Saturday lunch date once a month with each of your children, so just the two of you have that all important one-on-one time.
Maybe your family tradition will be an annual trip to Chinatown to celebrate the Chinese New Year, the neighborhood snow fort competition or catching a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. The tradition doesn’t matter. The important part is letting kids know it’s something they can count on each year to make memories that will last them a lifetime.