Every parent dreads the words, "I'm bored." But next time you hear that unsettling phrase, remember that pricey entertainment isn't the only solution.
"In this economy, people are taking 'stay-cations' rather than vacations and looking for ways to allocate whatever available resources they have in their home," says Dean Hill, ASLA, CGP, president and principal landscape designer at Indianapolis-based Terratecture. So take a peek outside - your yard just might be the most cost-effective way to keep the kids busy.
"Our kids will play in the backyard for hours with a simple rock and a stick," says Eric Hayes, father of 10 and star of TLC's "Table for 12." But if the stick quickly loses its spark in your household, stand ready with the following fun-filled ideas.
1. Nurture Green Thumbs
Kids love to get messy, so give them a good reason to play with dirt. Designate an area for children to plant their favorite vegetables or flowers, and let them dig away.
"This brings excitement to the yard because the kids look forward to watching something grow that they've nurtured and invested in," says Michelle Pollak, ASID, president of The Lollipop Tree, a children's design firm in Charleston, S.C. Plus, you don't have to pay a professional since a quick trip to the local nursery will do.
But before you go, Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods" (Algonquin Books, 2008), suggests that if your children are little, you should choose seeds large enough for them to handle and that mature quickly. Once their garden has matured, Louv says young gardeners can help feed the family, share food with neighbors, donate to food banks, or even sell their extra produce and plant life at community farmers' markets.
2. Reinvent Game Time
When your kids are tired of the same-old baseball, football and kickball games, Jodi Levine, kids editorial director for Martha Stewart Living, says to wow them with an obstacle course or mini golf course.
"The idea for both of these is using inexpensive items or things you have around the house to create courses that are different and fun," she says. You can place a wooden ladder on the ground for them to scamper through or line up hula hoops for the kids to lift over their bodies as they move through the obstacle. For mini golf, she suggests creating water traps with a sprinkler and using toys or cutup cardboard to make tunnels.
You can also send the kids on a scavenger hunt in your yard. "Give them a basket or box and a list of things to collect like twigs, leaves, stones or other items you hide in the yard," Levine notes. And so you're not scrambling for ideas while the kids lose their patience, Levine suggests purchasing equipment and supplies ahead of time and keeping everything in a bin in the shed, garage or on the back porch.
3. Set up Camp
Why travel to a campground when your own backyard will do? "In the summertime, our place is known as Camp Hayes because we have about 300 feet of woods behind our house that the neighborhood kids love to play in, and we're always barbequing," says Betty Hayes, mother of 10 and star of TLC's "Table for 12."
For a true wilderness feel, Louv says to set up a tent or help your kids make a canvas tepee and leave them up through summer. And don't forget s'mores, sing-a-longs and a telescope for star-gazing.
4. Get Crafty
Outside is the perfect place for kids to experiment with art projects. Levine says to create an outdoor craft kit that's easily accessible and includes supplies like crayons, markers, paint, sidewalk chalk, decorative hole punchers, glue, glitter and beads. Oilcloth or vinyl table coverings and inexpensive bowls and trays to hold the supplies help keep things organized. Once the children have everything on hand, they're ready to explore.
Texture rubbing and scrapbooking are other ideas. "They can lay paper against a tree, house or fence and rub the side of a crayon over the paper to experiment with different textures outside," Levine explains. Or you might try giving them a camera to capture their outside adventures and document in a scrapbook.
5. Soak in the Silver Screen
Bring the kids' favorite indoor pastime outdoors. Create a movie screen by stringing a sheet along your fence or hanging it between trees. As far as equipment, Levine suggests contacting your local audiovisual rental company for a projector and the library or video store for the perfect flick. For finishing touches, place blankets on the grass or set up comfy chairs, and be sure to bring out a big bucket of popcorn.
However you utilize your yard, the Hayes family says to keep it fun. "We're not really worried if our kids accidentally dig a hole in the wrong spot or hit the house with a baseball," says Eric Hayes. "As long as they learn how to fill that hole or fix what they broke, the outside should be a place they can let loose and just be kids," adds Betty Hayes.
6. Consider the Future
If you're adding a swing set, playhouse, treehouse, sandbox, trampoline or pool to your yard, consider aesthetics. "The biggest problem I see is that families want to have the big play sets in their backyard, but when kids get older, the parents are left with these non-fitting items," Hill says. So he suggests thinking ahead and mapping out the best areas for fixtures.
"Just because you're catering to kids doesn't mean it has to be ugly or cheap," Pollak notes. "Try to purchase the highest quality products you can afford because the prettier and more appealing they are, the more a child will want to take care of it, and the more attractive it will be in your yard."
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