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Family Fun Time on the Cheap
by Nancy Castleman

Although Marc and I do a fair amount of traveling in the winter -- these days, mainly down to North Carolina to see the five of our eight grandkids and assorted other family members who live down there -- when the weather is nice, there's no place we'd rather be than on our home turf. And we love the idea of vacationing at home.

As we've spent more time down south, our perspective has changed. For example, our family in NC is much more likely to enjoy outdoor activities in April, May, and October, as opposed to what us northerners would do in July and August. Down there, it's so hot in the summer months, that indoor daytime adventures are much more pleasant then. This wake-up call on a real difference between north and south has inspired us to come up with activities that may appeal to you wherever you live.

Maybe you're like us, or maybe the high cost of gas is making you think about spending more of your family fun time closer to home. In either case, we hope the following helps you and yours enjoy some el cheapo vacation time.

For starters, to "officially" launch your vacation at home, you can turn the phone off, or if you prefer, put the answering machine on. Forget the routine chores, and consider stopping mail delivery. Your goal is to leisurely enjoy doing all those things you rarely have time to do.

Whether or not you decide to go incommunicado, here are some great nice weather activities for you and your kids right in your own backyard:

1. Pick a Peck of Pebbles -- Get the whole family involved in gardening. Have the kids help pick out and plant the veggies or flowers they like best, be it popcorn, peas, or sunflowers.

No room for a garden? Think again. How about up on the roof? Or consider joining a community garden or a CSA farm. Via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), local residents buy shares in a grower's harvest, and in exchange, receive fresh produce when it's in season. To find a CSA near you, visit www.csacenter.org.

Wherever you garden, and even if you use as much mulch as we do, there'll be weeds. Weeding is a surprisingly enjoyable task that you and your kids (better their knees than yours!) can do together -- especially if you pick a small area, avoid the hottest part of the day, and reward them for finishing the job.

"Rocking" is a popular child's chore in our garden. Depending on the age of the child, we've been known to pay anywhere from a penny to a nickel for every rock tossed into a bucket. Our carrots and taste buds certainly appreciate the results!

2. Summer Showers -- Around the 11th of August, when the Perseid meteor showers fill the sky, is a great time to stargaze in your backyard. But there are fun things to see in the night sky year 'round. For leads and tips, get a copy of Exploring the Night Sky , and visit:

Astronomy on About.com
American Meteor Society

Lie down in a dark spot -- away from the house and street lights (on something waterproof, for protection from the nighttime dew). Marc and I usually pull two lounge chairs over to our driveway, where it's darkest. The chairs make it easy on our necks and backs. To enhance your stargazing experience, try our next suggestion ... .

3. From Dusk to Dawn -- After you've oohed and aahed at the shooting stars, you'll get a whole new appreciation of your surroundings by sleeping out under that real-life planetarium. (If sleeping out in your backyard isn't possible or safe, find another spot, preferably nearby.)

Make sure everyone has mosquito protection, is warmly dressed, and is comfy, so it's a positive experience for all. Try to wake early enough to watch the sun rise and see just which birds and other critters come out while you're normally sleeping.

4. Speaking of Birds -- Build birdhouses by cutting out the face on a Quaker Oats box, or by making a small hole, not much bigger than a quarter, a few inches up from the bottom of a dried gourd. You can also perch an empty olive oil tin on its side. Wrens and bluebirds will happily raise a family in any of these no-rent apartments.

Whatever nesting boxes you use, place them about 5 feet high, here and there in your backyard -- on fence posts, trees, on the side of the house or garage, etc. The birds don't need anything fancy, just an enclosed place where they can build a nest. (Given our "herd" of cats, we make sure to have a barrier directly below the birdhouse ... generally a large screen ... to keep the felines away from our feathered friends.)

Stay tuned. Soon you'll get to watch the nests being built and the baby birdies coming alive, hungrily chirping to get fed. Then they'll fledge (begin flying) and quite soon, they'll take off for good. Momma and poppa may nest there more than once this summer, so keep your eyes out!

5. It's Party Time -- Get to know your neighbors. Plan a pot luck block party in your apartment building or on your block, cul-de-sac, or road, and invite everybody. Remember, you might all need each other some day, so why not lay the groundwork with an afternoon or evening of fun this summer?

If organizing a whole meal seems like too big a deal, how about a desserts-only event? (Watermelon and other fresh fruit offerings will help limit the sugar rush, but hey, it's a special event and a great time for a taste treat! Got an ice cream maker?)

6. One Person's Junk -- Spend a Saturday morning at yard sales. They can be great, cheap fun -- especially if you look at them as treasure hunts. Explain to your kids that the money you save by buying them good used clothes can be put toward their peer-pressured duds or admission to some of the things they lobby for -- like movies and amusement parks. Or maybe they can replenish their stock of toys ... at bargain prices. Then hold your own tag sale, so you and your kids can clear out all your junk and get some cash in exchange.

7. Escape from the Heat -- Movie matinees are great bargains, and the theaters are invariably ice cold. You can take in one of the summer's big hits, and get yourself a "big chill," all for a pittance of the price at night.

8. For Those Days When You ... and They ... Need a Break from Family Time -- Check on whether there are free or low cost community recreation programs at local schools, town parks, or community centers. They're great ways to keep the kids occupied without shelling out big bucks. In fact, they're often so inexpensive that you can afford to send the kids or not, depending on your mood or theirs, and what other alternatives you have for a particular day.

Warning: Some programs are geared entirely to the great outdoors ... that is, the local playground ... have no rainy day activities, and dismiss the kids if a thunderstorm is likely, so you'll need a Plan B for those eventualities.

9. Water, Water Everywhere -- Find out about all the local watering holes in your area. (A tip-off is the line of cars parked along a road on a hot day.) Break up your swimming by building good old fashioned sand castles, forts, mermaids, you name it.

Buy a good used canoe or rowboat, or rent one to take out on local waterways. If you don't feel like traveling on a steaming hot day, fill up a pile of balloons with water and have a cooling "fight." Just running in and out of the sprinkler is another great way to cool off.

10. Christmas Need Not Only Come in December -- Volunteers are needed all year long, but summer presents some special opportunities:

Help build a home with Habitat for Humanity.

Be a substitute Big Brother/Big Sister (many of the college students who do this during the school year aren't around over the summer).

Join a crew clearing a hiking trail or cleaning a vacant lot for a community garden. Zoos and nature centers need more volunteer help in the warm months, too.

Get involved in summer theater -- onstage or backstage (or watch for free as an usher). Gain free admission to pricey summer festivals by volunteering to work at the event.

Help out at a soup kitchen. The homeless are hungry even when it's not a holiday!

11. Have a Plan to Deal with the "I'm Bored!!!" Syndrome -- Get the schedules from every tourist attraction, historical site, and museum in the area, and check the newspaper each week, so you'll have kid-friendly events and day trip possibilities in mind, throughout the year, whenever your child starts to complain.

12. Head to the Hills -- Nearby state parks and Audubon nature centers are wonderful for nature hikes, animal tracking, and wildflower identification. If you go often, check out buying a year-long pass or becoming a member (both of which usually bring free or greatly reduced-cost admission). Ask about special programs for both junior naturalists and the rest of us.

We have one friend who every year or two decides to learn as much as he can about a nature subject, be it trees, mountains, or mushrooms. He'll hook up with the local group that focuses on the subject and learn first-hand from the experts, and he'll read everything he can find on the subject.

You could do likewise, or build upon another interest your kid has, be it dinosaurs, dress-up, or doo-doo ... ahem ... animal tracking. Whatever. There's something incredibly special to a kid about having a parent directly involved in the experience of learning something with them, just for fun. The same is true for building something together. Is it time for that treehouse?! Or the model trains?

13. Make History Come Alive -- Together, you could research how people in your town spent July 4th, say 50 or 100 years ago. (The library's probably air-conditioned.)

Or you could connect with some of the old-timers in the area who will no doubt have fascinating stories to tell. A favorite of ours is the one our neighbor Tom tells about how they used to farm ice off the Hudson River, with horses and sleighs, and then were able to keep the ice until August!

Similarly, if there's a president who was born nearby, or a Civil War battlefield, or a pivotal location in the civil rights movement, stop by and give the kids a real taste of our history.

14. Go Berry Picking -- You'll get fresh, cheap fruit, and you'll have a lot of fun in the process -- if you don't pick the hottest day of the year or the hottest part of the day. Keep it short and sweet, so the kids will want to go again.

And if you actually wind up bringing some fruit home (Marc usually eats as much as he puts in his bucket), you can use it for homemade ice cream, jam, or other taste treats. Pop some in the freezer, too, so you can relive the memory in the dead of winter.

15. Make a Campfire -- Invite lots of friends of all ages, get someone to play the guitar, roast marshmallows, and make s'mores. Yummy!

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