Category Archives: Play and Fun Activities

Traveling with Children

Traveling with young children can be challenging! But there are many things you can do to help it go more smoothly. Here’s the TL; DR, with links to more details below.

  • Cultivate Flexibility: Even when not on vacation, use flexible routines to help your child learn to adapt to change.
  • Plan Carefully: Think about your child’s basic needs for sleep, meals, down time. Can you schedule travel times to be compatible? Can you choose lodging that’s a good fit? Is there another adult who could travel with you – that’s more fun, plus an extra set of hands.
  • Prepare Your Child: If they know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it will be much easier for them to behave well.
  • Packing for the Trip: Pack light so you’re not juggling lots of heavy suitcases and cranky children. Strategize ahead of time how you’ll carry everything.
  • Pack a Carry-On Bag of items you’ll need easy access to. Include: snacks, a water bottle, extra clothes.
  • Activities to Keep Kids Busy while traveling include: reading materials, activity books, art supplies or drawing tools, painter’s tape, assorted small toys, a tablet/phone with headphones, and a parent with ideas for fun games to play while sitting still.
  • On your travel day, dress in comfortable clothes, allow lots of extra time, and try to model calm, patience and flexibility.
  • If you’re traveling in 2021, learn more about COVID safety issues.

Let’s look at all those points in more detail.

Long Before Traveling – Develop Flexibility

Young children thrive on predictable routines. Repeating the same behavior over and over helps them to learn how to do it independently. Knowing what to expect helps them to behave well.

However, you want to be sure to build flexibility into the routines, and be careful not to be too rigid. For example, if your child will only go to sleep in their bed, with their fluffy comforter, and these twelve stuffed animals surrounding them, that will make bedtime on vacation very challenging! I try to create portable rituals. For example, my son likes listening to music at bedtime – we use a Pandora playlist that is available on all our devices and even offline so we can have it anywhere (as long as a device has battery life left.) Although my daughter loved being surrounded by stuffed animals, we practiced having her choose just one on some nights so that on trips that would be a familiar situation.

Also, practice skills at home that your child may someday need on a trip. Take rides on your local bus. Go to the mall to learn to ride an escalator. Eat at restaurants. Use porta-potties. Go places where they have to wait in line with you for something. Try a small local water slide before a trip to a huge water park. Before going camping, first try using the sleeping bag in the house. Then try camping in a tent in the backyard. Don’t try all these sorts of things for the first time while you’re on a big holiday trip you invested a lot of money into!

During coronavirus, your child may not have had many outings in the world, so they may need extra practice at things like staying at the table in a restaurant, or sitting in a car seat for a long time.

Planning the Trip

In my personal experience – your mileage may vary – vacations with young children have to be primarily planned around the children’s needs first, and it is easiest for me to think about it as “I’m taking my child on a vacation and will adapt as needed to make sure they enjoy it” rather than getting caught in a trap of “this is MY vacation, and I need it to be exactly what I want it to be.” Around when my kids reach age 6 or 7, that shifts, and their vacation is also totally my vacation and equally enjoyable for us both.

So, think about your child’s napping needs. Think about how much stimulation they can take in before they melt down. Think about their food and mealtime needs. Their attention spans. What time of day they are most flexible and willing to do anything. Do they do well in the car seat for long trips? If you first attend to making sure your child’s bodily needs are met, then it’s easier to plan in fun activities and have them be successful.

For example, if booking a flight, will you be more successful if you travel mid-day than if you have an early flight you have to drag your child out of bed, or if you have a late evening flight that is past their bedtime? (On the other hand, for road trips, we often plan our driving for early morning, nap time or after bedtime so our child will sleep in the car…)

When choosing lodging, having a kitchenette may give you more flexibility for meals; having a washer/dryer can be helpful; having a hotel “suite” with a living room may make evenings more manageable as you can put little ones down to sleep in one room while adults relax in another room. Also, consider airbnb or VRBO instead of hotel rooms. It’s not always a good match, but I personally like sharing walls with as few people as possible when I’m traveling with a baby who might cry in the middle of the night. (I also preferred it when traveling at the peak of coronavirus as there’s fewer people sharing the same spaces than at a hotel.) And they may have an outdoor area where your child can play.

Many parents choose to travel to the same place over and over in those early years so they know how everything works there and they don’t have to keep figuring new things out for every summer – plus, you can have fun traditions like taking pictures of your child in the same place and see how much they’ve grown. You can save the more adventurous travel for when they’re older (or when you get an opportunity to travel on your own without kids!) When I was growing up, in a family with 4 kids spanning 10 years, we traveled in a motorhome, so that we could have lots of familiarity surrounding us as we ventured to new places.

You can choose cheap vacation destinations for young kids. Pick any small town with a cheap hotel, a playground, a lake or stream to wade in and throw rocks in, trees to climb, places to go for long walks, and a library to drop into for some story-time. Your child will be perfectly content. I also find this makes decision making easy… when there’s only a few restaurants in town, you don’t have to debate where to go… you just say “I guess on Tuesday night we’ll have Mexican and Wednesday night we’ll go to the soda fountain.”

You can save the exciting destinations for when they’re older and will appreciate them. We went to the world famous San Diego Zoo when my oldest was two. He spent the day being fascinated by the manhole covers in the sidewalk. Luckily, my husband and I thought the zoo was great!

Consider traveling with family members or adult friends. When my older kids were in elementary school and middle school, they weren’t that excited about visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Wyoming, but were very excited to MEET Grandma and Grandpa in San Diego or at the Grand Canyon or whatever. It was a fun vacation for everyone. When my youngest was little, my sister-in-law was our ” vacation nanny.” We’d meet at our destination, and that meant there was one more grown-up to help with the baby, but also meant that we could leave one grown-up with the napping child while the other two went to a tequila tasting.

If you’re planning to visit attractions, purchase your tickets in advance online if possible. It can be cheaper, and also means you won’t be disappointed by something being sold out when you get there.

Prepare Your Child

Tell your child what to expect and what’s expected of them. Sometimes I see parents scolding their children saying “would you just behave??” And I wonder – does your child know what that means? Seriously – if your young child is in a new environment, how can you expect them to intuit what the rules are there?

So, talk to them about what the plans are for the trip. Pay particular attention to explaining things they might be experiencing for the first time (or in a new way… if they were there as a toddler one year ago, then it will be a whole different experience as a preschooler!) Think ahead where the trickiest parts of the trip will likely be, when you’re trying to attend to adult issues on adult timelines and may not have your full attention available to explain things to them… think about getting through airport security or about setting up a tent or transferring from one train to another. Walk through those tricky parts in detail.

You can also find books and videos about traveling which will help them learn more about what that is like. For example, here are three videos about what to expect at the airport: One from TSA about security: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHjlN5lzCjM; an airport tour with a puppet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-OzTvCzt2o; or with a child guide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT8XZUZFuWE. Here are recommended books about camping, and more books about camping.

Look for “social stories.” These are prepared for children with autism, but can be helpful for any child. Search online for social stories for general experiences, like the airport or the airport with COVID protocols or amusement parks) or some museums and attractions have their own social stories.

Packing for the Trip

Lots of “travel with toddlers” tips start with a big list of all the things to pack and talk about how important it is to have everything you’re used to having with you when you’re traveling.

That is NOT my approach. I believe in traveling light because some of my most miserable moments of travel have been about trying to schlep too much luggage, abandoning valuable items while chasing children, and struggling through a bus door with suitcases hanging off both shoulders.

Before you start thinking about what to bring, first ask yourself: Realistically, how much can you carry while tending to children? I saw one suggestion which was “don’t pack more bags than you have hands”, but even that can be problematic if your hands are likely to be carrying a child who is tired and cranky.

I find roller bags can be tricky to pull when you’ve got a toddler by the hand, so backpacks can be easier since they leave your hands free. Some parents recommend having 3 – 6 year olds start being responsible for their own bags, and that’s great… but make sure you’ve also planned for how you can add their bag to your load when that backfires. Some parents love traveling with a stroller (often loading it with the luggage while they hold their child). Others find it’s just one more thing to schlep. (A mom I know who travels solo with kids highly recommends a low cost travel stroller.) Some parents use a toddler harness with a leash to make sure their child doesn’t escape them at an inopportune moment. If I’m flying in the winter, I either leave extra space in suitcases so I can shove our coats in before we check the bags, or if we’re doing carry-ons, I bring a plastic or cloth bag I can shove all the coat in to keep them together in the overhead. In the summer or on spring break escapes, I always have plastic bags for wet swimsuits that didn’t dry before it was time to pack.

Regarding car seats and airplanes: my preference if I’m traveling with a child under one is to check the carseat and wear the baby. For one to four year olds, it’s nice to have the carseat on the plane because that can keep them contained for more of the flight rather than wanting to run up and down the aisles. If you have not purchased a seat for a toddler, and it turns out that there is not an extra available, you can gate check the carseat.

It is a pain to carry carseats through airports. Make a plan for how to carry it easily – can you put it in a bag to carry it? Strap it to a suitcase? Here’s info from the FAA about how to use a car seat or a CARES harness on a plane. https://www.faa.gov/travelers/fly_children/

For bigger equipment, like carseats, strollers, and cribs / pack-n-plays, you may be able to borrow one or rent one at your destination. It’s not likely to be the newest or nicest one, but should be serviceable. I’ve known some grandparents to purchase needed items at a consignment store, and then when the children go home, sell it back to the same store.

Food: My oldest child was a flexible eater, who was happy to eat almost anything anywhere. My youngest is super picky. So, on all trips, I have a stash of snacks in the suitcase that I know for sure that he will eat. Otherwise, we don’t pack a lot of food for trips because I don’t want to schlep it and I don’t want to spend my vacation time cooking and cleaning. So, we often just hit a store when we get there and get simple things like cereal, cheese, crackers, fruit, veggies and dip. And we eat one meal out a day for nutritional variety and as one of the “events” of the day.

When I’m packing, my approach is to pack the minimum I think I’ll need. After that, I ask myself – “if I don’t have that, what will that mean?” For example, I now always bring a few Tylenol and a few allergy meds on every trip because of multiple holidays where we had to abandon plans to search out meds and then pay ridiculous prices for a large bottle when we only needed one. And Tylenol is small, so that’s an easy decision to make! For other things I’ve thought: “if it turns out I need another sweatshirt, I can always buy one in a gift shop.” When packing, I have that willingness to buy items if I end up needing them, and it actually has turned out that I’ve almost never really needed anything beyond that minimum that I had packed.

I involve the children in choosing a few comfort items to bring along (like a small stuffed animal), but I also make sure they know that we won’t have as many toys there as we do at home, and that’s OK, because we’re sure to find new and interesting things to do there. (This lack of distractions from home can actually help you be more present and more open to discovery on your trip.)

Packing the Carry On

Whether we’re traveling by plane, train, or automobile, we always have a “carry-on” bag packed with the items that need to be easy to access. I’ll sometimes even pack one for going to a restaurant or to grandma’s house where my child may be expected to stay in one place and quietly play.

I don’t like a bag with a lot of pockets where I need to put things away “just right” for them to fit. I like a tote bag or messenger bag I can shove things into quickly. I use a lot of ziplock bags to organize things in the bag – the extra clothes are in one baggy, the electronics in a baggy, the snacks in a baggy… then it’s easy for me to reach down, and pull out the bag for what I need without rummaging through everything. Also, when I had multiple small children I had separate toy bags for each.

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about what your child needs in their carry-on:

  • pacifiers or teething toys – have extra in case one gets lost or dirty
  • wipes and diapers – have more diapers than you expect to need
  • have some napkins or wet wipes handy for clean-ups
  • extra clothes for the child, and maybe for the parent (I have a friend who swears that every time she went on a plane from her children’s birth to age 10, they ended up spilling a drink on her.)
  • smartphone or tablet loaded with interesting content (make sure it’s fully charged!!) plus headphones your child is willing to wear
  • snacks – think about things that don’t make a lot of crumbs (like muffins!) or are hard to re-seal and will get goo everywhere (like yogurt tubes). I personally prefer large items they take bites of (chewy granola bars or protein bars, string cheese, fruit strips, applesauce packets) to lots of little bits that get dropped (goldfish crackers, pretzels). But other parents swear by the trick of getting a pill organizer or “snackle box” and filling each section with tiny snacks like Cheerios, raisins, nuts, M&M’s to keep the child occupied for a long time with opening sections and eating little bits.
  • a sippy cup for water (if you’re traveling by plane, fill it after security)
  • if you’re flying with an infant, be sure you know TSA rules for packing breastmilk or formula – https://www.tsa.gov/travel/special-procedures/traveling-children
  • for plane rides: the pressure changes during takeoff and landing can be really hard on a baby or child’s ears, causing a lot of discomfort and leading them to cry a lot. For a baby, plan to nurse or give a bottle during these times. For an older child, have them chew gum, suck on a lollipop, or use a sippy cup with a straw to relieve the pressure on their ears
  • toys / activities to keep them entertained (see below)
  • a plastic bag – for trash, for wet clothes, for an “I don’t have time to re-pack these things properly so I’ll just shove them in here for now bag)
  • Whatever you as a grown-up need to survive the trip. For me, honestly, when traveling with small children all I bring on a plane is a bottle of water and something to read – with no real expectation of getting much reading done while keeping the child happy

Keeping Them Entertained

Whether you’re on a road trip, on a bus, train, or plane, or in a restaurant with hangry folks who are all up past their normal bedtime, there will be times on a trip where you just need your child to sit still, and play quietly.

Some entertainment options that work well:

  • Screens. Tablet or phone with books, movies, or apps loaded and ready to go. Yep… no matter your usual attitude toward screen time, this may be a great time for it. Normally I advocate for passive toys to encourage kids to be active, but here, we actually want a passive child so occupying their attention with the screen can be helpful.
  • Reading materials: I like magazines so we can recycle them when my child finishes them and we don’t have to carry everything with us for the whole trip.
  • Puzzle books / activity books: I would take a trip to a bookstore or Lakeshore Learning before a trip and get workbooks.
  • Art supplies / drawing toys: You could pack a small pad of paper and a bundle of colored pencils or markers. These are great for art, but also for all sorts of paper-pencil games like Hangman, Dots, Tic Tac Toe, etc. I also like small white boards and magna-doodle toys – where the drawing stylus is attached by a string and can’t be dropped, and paint with water books, and Wikki Stix.
  • Magnetic travel games, like chess or magnetic tangrams.
  • For toddlers and preschoolers: masking tape / painters tape or post-it notes are so fun to stick down, pull up again, stick down again, and so on. You can make roads to drive their cars around, or draw pictures to stick around them. For older children, I like the removeable, reusable sticker books. (Don’t use regular stickers or you’ll be scraping them off everywhere the child could reach!)
  • For road trips: I love audiobooks and podcasts – it’s a great way to have a shared experience with kids – especially tweens and teens – it gives you something to talk about at the next meal as you reflect on what you heard in the story. I also like singalongs – put on the Beatles and singalong, or sing every camp song you know. (I have great memories from childhood of traveling in the RV, belting out camp songs!)
  • Assorted small toys – you know how random inexpensive toys enter your life from time to time? I’m talking birthday party favors, Happy Meal toys, good behavior rewards from the dentist, and so on. Things that aren’t great toys, but do provide short-term entertainment? Toy cars, plastic animals, and so on… Pull those out for trips. Some parents wrap them up like gifts or as rewards for good behavior, because opening them also keeps the child occupied a little longer, but I don’t like dealing with the mess of the wrapping paper. (Note: save a few toys for the trip home.)
  • Games to play – I Spy, 20 questions, would you rather, I’m going on a trip and so on! Check out my post on Easy Play Anywhere Games for kids age 5 and up.

A few tips on what to avoid:

  • don’t bring anything that is irreplaceable. (Remember how at the start of this article I talked about teaching your child flexibility? If they are utterly reliant on a single comfort item that is irreplaceable and that gets lost or damaged, that can be devastating. Encouraging your child to rotate between multiple comfort items – if possible – gives you more flexibility. And you can leave the irreplaceable one-of-a-kind item at home, and bring the generic, easily replaced item along.)
  • don’t bring expensive or valued items you feel you must bring home with you (I like the freedom of feeling like if I want to, I can leave anything behind and it will be OK – I rarely do, but I like that I could)
  • don’t bring things that are really messy (paint! play-dough, stickers with backings you remove) or really loud (instruments, electronic toys)
  • avoid items with lots of little pieces where if you drop / lose some pieces it will create great frustration (puzzles, Lego sets where they want to follow the instructions precisely, games with irreplaceable pieces)
  • don’t give your child antihistamines to make them drowsy

Travel Day

If you can check in online, print baggage tags online, get your maps ahead of time, or any other preparation, do so! The less you have to juggle on the road while juggling kids, the better. Dress everyone in comfy clothes, with layers to adjust for too much heat or too much air conditioning, and shoes that are easy to get on and off.

Allow LOTS of extra time. More than you think you’ll need! If you get somewhere early, you can always walk around to burn off some kid energy, or play I spy, or whatever, and you won’t be nearly as stressed when inevitable long lines or delays crop up.

The calmer you stay, the calmer your kid will be. If you’re extremely anxious about your baby crying on the plane, they’ll pick up on that anxiety, and be more likely to cry on the plane!

Teach your kid about “Opportuni-pee.” That means when we have a convenient opportunity to make a bathroom stop, we use it, even if we don’t HAVE to pee right then. Not just before you get on a plane or get on the road, but even at the fair or amusement park – when anyone needs to use the restroom, we all take our turn so it will be longer till we all have to stop again.

Be flexible, be nice to people, have fun… model for your child all the best traveler behavior you can think of! My partner calls this Vacation Mode – if you’re actively relaxed and having a good time, it helps those around you do the same.

At Your Destination

In the packing section, I mentioned we don’t bring a lot of toys, other than a comfort item and the distractions in the carry-on. When parents have a lot of attention to give to kids, it’s easy to improvise play activities. When you’re in a new environment, there’s lots of new things to discover and explore.

Some of my favorite vacation memories: fireflies in a midwest campground after dark, collecting a rainbow of colorful rocks in Australia, stacking plastic cups from the airplane with my toddler son, building driftwood cabins on a beach, making “sock bunnies” when we forgot to bring my daughter’s stuffed animal, stacking flat rocks into tall towers, facepaint from a gift shop, cutting out models of the planets from a cheez-it box when my two year old child was obsessed with the solar system, playing whatever board games we find at vacation homes – including the 80’s classic Mall Madness, and making improvised nature art with my toddler when my teen was sleeping in late.

Slowing down to kid speed on vacation and following your child’s lead can take you to some magical places.

COVID and Travel

For summer 2021, you may have questions about the safety of traveling with unvaccinated children. I gathered resources and questions to consider in this post.

Affiliate links: Note that some of the links in this post will take you to product descriptions on Amazon. If you order anything on Amazon after clicking on these links, I do receive a small referral bonus, at no cost to you.

Easy Play Anywhere Games

It’s super helpful to have ideas for simple games that can be played anytime / anywhere, so when you’re stuck in a line or a waiting room, you’ve got a way to entertain kids.

Most of these work best for children age 5 and up. A few, like I Spy and Scavenger Hunt, are good for younger kids – I’ve marked those with an asterisk.

Talking / Listening Games

These games can be played anywhere, with no materials. (They even work great over the phone or on Zoom.) They can work with two people or with a group. No need to move around to play, so they’re good for restaurants, car trips, etc.

Progressive Stories. One person starts a story: “Once upon a time, a polka-dotted elephant…” then the next person continues “… boarded a spaceship headed for… “

Packing the Suitcase. One person starts with something like “My aunt was going on a trip to Japan and she packed her toothbrush…” and the second person says “My aunt… packed her toothbrush and a four leaf clover.” The third person repeats what has come before and adds a new item. Keep going till someone makes a mistake.

Two Truths and a Lie – Each person tells two true things about themselves and one lie. Others have to guess the lie.

Would you Rather? Ask any question using the format “would you rather ______ or _______” and the other(s) choose their preference, and why.

Fortunately / Unfortunately. One person starts a story with something as simple as “One day I decided to go for a picnic in the park.” Then the next person says “Fortunately [fill in the blank]” then someone else jumps in with “Unfortunately [fill in the blank]” and keep on going… on and on…

Never Have I Ever: One person says “never have I ever _______” and describes something. If you’ve never done it either, you leave your fingers down. If you HAVE done it, raise a finger and keep holding it up. The next person says “never have I ever”. At the end of the game who ever has the most fingers up “wins.”

Play 20 questions. “Is it an animal, vegetable, or mineral?” (Learn more.)

Geography. Someone names a place (city, country, whatever category you decide on). The next person needs to name another place that STARTS with the letter that one ENDED with. So, for example, CaliforniA, ArkansaS, South CarolinA. Can also do animals or other categories following the same rules.

*I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter A. You say that… someone guesses it, then it’s their turn to say “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter R, or whatever. Instead of animals, you could do Star Wars characters, Pokemon, or whatever. [For younger children, simplify this by describing things: “I’m thinking of an animal that’s small and brown… we’ve seen one in our backyard… it has long ears…”]

Categories. On NPR’s Sunday puzzle, he sometimes has a puzzle like “If I give you the 5 letter word Piano, can you give me five women’s names that start with the letters in PIANO?” (e.g. Paula, Inez, Amy, Nadia, Olivia). We pick any five letter word, and do categories like “Cities in Washington” or “Models of Car” or “Animals” or whatever.

And if all that was too cerebral, try: Rock Paper Scissors and Thumb Wrestling.

*I Spy. One person finds something they can see around them, says “I spy with my little eye….” The other person searches for it. When they find it, it’s their turn. For toddlers, this is simple “I spy something red” or “I spy a dog.” For older kids, it’s more sophisticated “I spy something starting with the letter L” or “I spy something that was made before 1980.”

Paper and Pencil Games

These just require something to write on. Paper, white board, the Zoom white board, etc.

Tic-Tac-Toe. Draw out a grid – you and opponent take turns drawing in X and O.

Hang Man. You come up with a word, draw out the hangman. Participants guess letters.

*Doodle Game. One person makes a random scribble, then the other person needs to use that scribble as the foundation for a drawing – creating some artwork that somehow includes that scribble. For young children, they always do the scribble, the grown-up always completes the drawing.

Dots and Squares. Draw several columns of dots. Person 1 draws a line between two dots, then person 2, then person 1 again… whenever they complete all four sides of a box, they write their initial in the box.

Draw on Your Head. The child places the paper on top of their head. Then you give a clue, like flower, bird, house, etc. They draw a picture on top of their head without looking, and then share it.

Find details on these and more pen and paper games here: https://www.thelondonmother.net/easy-pen-and-paper-games/

Moving Around Games

*Play Simon Says. Or Red Light, Green Light. Or any of the MANY variations on Tag.

*Scavenger Hunt Fetch. Ask child(ren) to find certain objects – they run and find it and bring it back.

*Charades. Give a clue to one person – they act it out – others guess. For younger children, you act things out, they guess.

On the Move Games

These are for when you’re walking or moving in a car or on a bus or train…

License Plate Game. How many states or provinces can you spot license plates from over the course of a trip. If you print a map of the states, your child can color each in as they find the license plate, which will reinforce geography knowledge for them.

Find the Alphabet on Signs. Find a sign with the letter A on it. Then another sign with the letter B. And so on. (Or do the same with numbers.)

*Find Colors. Spot something red, then orange, yellow, green, blue, purple…

*Scavenger Hunt. Prepare (or find online) a list of items to try to spot as you travel. Or you can create Bingo boards. For younger children, just tell them one idea at a time to search for – can you find an animal?

Punch Buggy. If you see a Volkswagen Beetle and call Punch Buggy, you get to punch someone. P’diddle, P’daddle. After dark, if you see a car with one missing headlight, you say p-diddle, and if you see a car with no headlights, you say p-daddle. You get to kiss someone.

Encore. Name a word – other people try to sing songs including that word.

While You Were Sleeping. When someone wakes up from a nap, make up a crazy story of “what they missed”.

There are more fun ideas for road trip games here: https://www.erieinsurance.com/blog/road-trip-games-to-play

Connecting to Nature from Home

TL; DR: There are so many physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting with nature. But parents may face barriers to getting outside. Perceived barriers could be: the parents’ lack of knowledge / experience with nature, minimal access to wild lands, and health/disability issues which limit ability to explore outdoors. This post will highlight super simple ways to connect more to nature by just looking out your window more, by bringing a little of nature into your home, by spending time in your own yard or in any outdoor space, or by using webcams and educational videos to learn more about nature.

Looking out the window:

Studies of hospital patients have shown decreased need for pain medications and shorter post-operative stays for those who can see nature outside the hospital window. Here are some things you can do without even going out:

  • Weather Checks: Notice what the weather is, even if you’re not going out. Teach about weather. In my lesson plan about Weather Science, you’ll find ideas about teaching weather vocabulary, drawing the weather, creating weather charts, observing and identifying clouds.
  • Notice seasonal changes: The view outside your window is always changing. Maybe the flowers are blooming, or the leaves are changing colors. With your child, take a picture from the same view once every week, and then compare them side by side to notice what has changed.
  • Gaze at clouds – what shapes do you see?
  • Keep a tally: Decide what you’ll count: birds? people passing by? dogs? cars? Whatever it is, looking outdoors and counting means lots of time looking outdoors!
  • Tell stories: when a car passes by, imagine who is in it, and what they might be doing.

Bringing Nature In

Try any of these easy activities:

  • Dissect vegetables and fruits. When you’re prepping food, try “dissecting” it with your child – carefully cutting it apart and examining the parts. You can use books or the internet to learn more about plant parts. Save your seeds – apple seeds, cherry pits, or whatever.
  • Sprout seeds Use seeds you saved, or dry beans. Fold a paper towel, wet it, put it in a ziplock baggie. Add a seed. Seal the baggie and tape it to a window with the seed facing in where you can see it. Wait a few days.
  • Once you’ve sprouted your seeds, if you have access to dirt or potting soil, you can plant them. You can use any container you have.  For example, if you have a margarine or yogurt tub, poke a couple holes in the bottom for drainage, set it on its lid before putting it in the window. Or you could make a terrarium from a 2 liter bottle.
  • Propagate a succulent plant. If you have a succulent, you can gently twist off a leaf or two, let it dry for a day or two, set the leaf on top of some soil. Every day or two, spritz some water on the soil to keep it moist. After a few weeks (this is a slow process!) they will have roots. Then plant those roots in the soil. Water these new plants once a week, and they will grow. It can take months for that leaf to become a little plant – this is a slow process, but I love my little baby succulents!
  • Plant potatoes in a container. (Just do a search for that, and you’ll find all the details!) Grow sweet potato vines.  Grow celery from the base of a bunch of celery, or lettuce from the core.
  • If you have celery, cabbage, or white flowers, you can teach about the science of wicking by putting them in colored water, and over 24 hours or so, they’ll pull the color up into them.
  • Vegetable prints. You can cut the base off a stalk of celery, or the base off of a bell pepper, or slice mushrooms in half, then use those to print paint in fun designs. Lots of plastic water bottles and plastic soda bottles have a sort of flower shape on the bottom that if you dip it in paint you can print flower gardens. (see pictures)
  • Consider a pet. But please don’t buy any pet without serious research… I firmly believe that if I bring an animal into my home, I’m making a commitment to caring for that pet for its natural lifetime. A manageable starting place for a family with young children is a betta fish, perhaps with a nerite snail to manage the algae.

Your Backyard / Sidewalk

Getting outside helps connect you to nature, but it can also let your kid MOVE more and get out some energy. It’s also a great opportunity to let them use their “outside voice”! Don’t let the weather stop you from going out. Being outside in the rain or cold won’t make kids sick! Just have them put on appropriate clothes for the weather.

  • Work on a garden together. Or even on an outdoor project like building raised beds, building a brick retaining wall or a cobblestone path. “Heavy work” is great for children, and helps them burn up a lot of energy as well as gain pride from building something real.
  • Make a bird feeder, hang it up, and then keep a record of what kinds of birds you see. Learn about those birds online. Here is a guide to bird calls for birds commonly found in the Pacific NW.
  • Go on a bug hunt.
  • Nature crafts: gather grass, flowers and more to spell out your name, or to make bookmarks (take a piece of contact paper or clear packing tape, lay your flowers on it, then put another piece of packing tape on top to seal it. Trim the edges to a nice shape). Make a wind chime, from old keys or a plastic cup and beads.
  • Don’t feel like you have to entertain them or educate them continuously outside. It’s also fine to let them discover ways to self entertain. Put out toys or equipment that are fine for outdoors: jumpropes, balls, toy shovels if there’s somewhere they can dig, a container of water and scoops and funnels, sidewalk chalk, etc.

Walking in your Neighborhood

While I love going on long hikes and discovering new wilderness areas, there are also a lot of health benefits to walking anywhere – including just walking around your neighborhood every day. If you’re walking the same loop every day, it might start to feel repetitive… here’s some ways you can keep it interesting:

  • Notice nature’s changes: Nature provides an always-changing experience…. and we have time to stop and observe, ask questions, and learn. Have new trees blossomed? Have trees dropped leaves or seeds? Are there birds? squirrels? bugs? What did yesterday’s wind blow around?
  • Practice traffic rules: practice at looking both ways before you cross the street – and talk about what you’re looking for and making judgments about whether it’s safe to cross. Teach about turn signals, stop signs, watching for driveways and more.
  • Learn navigation: teach addresses and street names. Bring a paper map and teach how to use it. Use a mapping app on your phone and teach how to use it. For little ones, practice turning left and right on command. Draw a map of the neighborhood.
  • Play red light, green light.
  • Try “nature shopping“, where the child gathers a collection of natural items, like rocks or pinecones or leaves.
  • Collecting photos: on every walk, you can take photos of things you want to remember and make a little photo album of your favorite finds.
  • Scavenger Hunts: prepare a list of things you would expect to be able to see or hear or do on your outing. Bring stickers along and as you’re out on an adventure, any time you find one of the items on the list, your child can put a sticker on it. Then when the scavenger hunt is complete, you can have a snack when you get home as a reward. Ideas for scavenger hunts:
    • Things to listen for: crows, bird calls, running water, wind in the leaves, people’s voices in the distance, dogs barking
    • Things to look for: pinecones, mushrooms, ferns, moss, spider web, bugs
    • Things to do: go up or down stairs, cross a crosswalk, wait for a light… if you know your neighborhood, it will be easy for you to make a list they can successfully complete
    • Go on a bug scavenger hunt
    • Go on a numbers scavenger hunt – how long does it take you to find all the numbers 1 – 10?
    • Go on a letters scavenger hunt: can you find all the letters A – Z on your walk? Check street signs, license plates, etc.
    • For more ideas, just search “backyard scavenger hunt.”
    • For older kids: try Pokemon Go,  geocaching or letterboxing.

Resources for Hands-On Activities

The Wild Network is dedicated to easy ideas for getting kids outdoors and connected to nature. They have lots of wild time ideas at https://thewildnetwork.com/wild-time-ideas/ and more inspiration – https://thewildnetwork.com/inspiration/

The National Wildlife Federation encourages parents to ensure that children get one “green hour” outside every day. They have lots of activity ideas at: https://www.thegreenhour.org/.

Nature Mentoring has 22 ideas for Sharing Nature with Beginners: https://nature-mentor.com/nature-connection-activities/

Virtual Nature

Lots of zoos have webcams that let you observe animals in action. Check out: https://zoocamerasaroundtheworld.com/. You’ll find the Panda Cam from Atlanta, the penguins from Woodland Park in Seattle, otters from Chattanooga, and many more. The San Diego zoo has many live cams, plus lots of videos. The National Zoo has four. The trick with live webcams is that sometimes you see nothing… At the exact moment I type this, if I try to look at the naked mole rats in DC, all I see is an enclosure with a spinach leaf and a piece of corn on the cob. So, plan on flipping between several webcams till you find one with some good action going on. Here’s a  Virtual Field Trip Lesson Plan you could use to enhance your viewing.

There are also aquariums with webcams: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, and the Seattle Aquarium has a virtual field trip.

There are also lots of great nature videos on National Geographic Kids, Ranger Rick from the National Wildlife Federation, and National Geographic on Disney+.

Outdoor Theatre 2021

Kitsap Forest Theatre, www.foresttheater.com/

Kitsap Forest Theatre, http://www.foresttheater.com/

Each year, I write a post about all the outdoor theatre productions that will happen that summer. It was heartbreaking in 2020 when all the theaters were dark, and it’s sad that even in 2021, many have not yet returned. But, I am thrilled to say that there WILL BE OUTDOOR THEATER IN SUMMER 2021!!!

So… here’s this year’s update of my almost-always-annual post.

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Outdoor productions of Shakespeare and other plays are a fun way to experience the arts in the summer time. Bring a picnic, spread a blanket out on the grass, and enjoy! (If you prefer sitting in a chair to on the ground, be sure it’s a low profile chair so you don’t block anyone’s view.) In 2021, productions will have COVID precautions in place, such as masking and distancing. Check their websites for the most current info.

Outdoor theater is a good venue for kids because it gives more leeway for squirming and wiggling than an indoor performance with theater rules. However, you should still endeavor to keep kids quiet and well-behaved. Other than Storybook Theater, most of the shows listed here are good for ages 8 and up. We have brought preschoolers to shows, but we don’t expect them to pay full attention – bring snacks, toys, and sticker books to entertain them quietly. Also understand that during outdoor productions, at times your experience may be interrupted by Frisbee players in the far distance, dogs sniffing by, and airplanes flying overhead.

Seattle Area:

NEW THIS YEAR: Storybook Theater in the Park. Studio East in Kirkland has been doing fabulous productions perfect for 3 – 7 year old children for many years. This August, they will perform The Boy Who Cried Wolf for free at various sites on the Eastside. Studio East is also doing Twelfth Night – Shakespeare in the Park featuring teen actors, on June 18 – 20 at Juanita Beach Park in Kirkland. Free.

Greenstage Shakespeare in the Park is presenting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They also have smaller 4-actor adaptations of plays, called Backyard Bard that are an hour long. They’re doing Twelfth Night and the Tempest. (All three of these shows are some of the more accessible Shakespeare plays for older children.) Fridays – Sundays from July 9 – August 14 in Seattle, Burien, and Fall City. Free, but please donate lots!

Wooden O, from Seattle Shakespeare.  Presenting Comedy of Errors. Thursdays thru Sundays, July 23 – August 8. By donation. Seattle, Tacoma, Des Moines, Federal Way.

Snoqualmie Falls Forest Theatre. Presenting “The Leisure Time Radio Show” on Saturdays and Sundays, August 7 – 21, as a dinner theater. Food and show for $40 – 44.

Outdoor Trek from Hello Earth Productions. In 2022, plan for Return (at last!) of the Jedi.

The Seattle Outdoor Theatre Festival will return in 2022.

Day Trips or Overnights

Island Shakespeare Festival – Langley. Will present As You Like It, Thurs – Sun at 6 pm, from August 6 – September 12. In the past, they were free, with donations encouraged – I assume it’s the same this year. (If you go, donate lots!) Their postponed 2020 Summer Season, with Love’s Labor’s LostTitus Andronicus, and Cyrano de Bergerac, will be presented in 2022.

Kitsap Forest Theatre – near Bremerton. Will present Little Women – the Broadway Musical. (My kids liked this show a lot when they saw it at age 9 or 10.) Shows are on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00.  June 12/13, 19/20, 26/27; July 10/11, 17/18, 24/25; August 7/8, 14/15, 21/22.  $34 adults, $18 youth, 6 and under free. Their shows that weren’t presented in 2020 (Beauty & the Beast and Bend in the Road, the Anne of Green Gables Musical) are moved to 2022.

Leavenworth Summer Theatre is presenting Sound of Music most Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays from July 9 – Aug 21. Tickets go on sale in June. In previous years, they were $14 – 35. They will perform their planned 2020 shows of the Music Man and The Secret Garden in 2022.

Other Summer Arts Opportunities

Library Summer Reading Programs

Library programs for ages 3 – 12 happen all summer long, and include reading logs with completion prizes, story times and other events. In 2021, for KCLS, all events will be held online. King County library:  This year’s theme is space themed so the shows are about space, the stars, and science. Go to this page https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/events/search/index, and you can filter for events that work for you, or type the name of a show you want to see into the search bar at the top of the page. The Seattle Public Library summer reading info is here.

Other Activities for Kids in the Seattle area:

If you’re looking for other fun ideas for the summer, check out my series on “Cheap Dates with Toddlers and Young Kids”,  or reviews of Eastside Parks or find hands-on STEM enrichment activities for kids age 3 – 7 at www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.

For school year activities, if you have kids age birth to 7, check out info about info about fabulous classes at local community colleges that are great for kids AND include parent education for you,- register now before they fill up!!

Parks with Industrial Artifacts

Some people love nature, and can look at mossy trees, birds, and spider webs all day long. Some people don’t connect to that at all and are far more interested in mechanical objects. And sometimes those two types of people are married to each other. Or sometimes there’s a parent in one camp who has a child in the other camp. One way to find common ground is to seek out signs of cool machines in natural settings. Here are some options with that appeal in western Washington: Gas Works Park in Seattle, coal mining remnants in Newcastle, Snoqualmie Falls, Fort Casey on Whidbey Island and the Ballard Locks.

Gas Works Park in Seattle

In the Wallingford neighborhood (2101 N Northlake Way, Seattle, WA 98103), Gas Works contains remnants of a coal gasification plant that operated from 1906 – 1956. (Learn more about Gas Work’s history and the park today.) In addition to viewing the gas works, there’s also a great hill for kite flying, a sundial, great views of the boats on Lake Union, and easy access to the Burke-Gilman trail.

Coal Mining Remnants in Newcastle

On the border between Bellevue, Issaquah, and Newcastle, you’ll find the Coal Creek Trails in Cougar Mountain Regional Park. It’s a beautiful nature hike with lots of native plants, and view of Coal Creek, with the added bonus of ruins from old coal mines, and interpretive signs about their history. There’s also an old Nike missile installation, but not a lot to see there. (Learn more here.) I wrote up a guide to the science of coal formation and the history of coal mining in the area when I took an elementary school age class on a field trip there. You can read it here.

Here’s a trail map of the zone I’d recommend hiking. Walk Wildside trail to Steam Hoist trail to see the Steam Hoist. If the path isn’t flooded, go around the Steam Hoist trail loop to see the info about saw mills. Use Steam Hoist trail to get back to Ford. At Ford Slope, view a rail car (picture here), machinery, a closed mine shaft, swamp gas vents, and the 1920 (bridge??) just up the hill. If you still have lots of energy, hike up Rainbow Town (steep) to Red Town, then down Bradley Seam Trail back to Wildside to trailhead. If you have some energy, then you can duck back down Wildside just a bit, go UP Bradley Seam, and then walk down Red Town. On Bradley Seam, you’ll see an exposed coal seam and be able to pick up and examine lots of coal samples along the side of the path.

This is around a mile and a half hike without a a lot of elevation gain. Parts of the trail are wide gravel roads, some are more challenging terrain. I hiked it with 5 – 9 year old kids who did great. With younger kids, it would be trickier, and you’d need to make sure they were stating safe. (More about the hike.) The hike to Coal Creek Falls is beautiful, but it’s 3.5 miles with 350 feet of elevation gain and some tricky terrain, so not the best for a novice hiker. (Full Trail Map.)

Directions: Start at Red Town Trail Head parking lot, Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park. From I-90 take exit 13 and drive south on Lakemont Blvd SE for 3.1 miles. Parking lot is to left (east side) of Lakemont. (Watch for the park sign and a dirt parking lot). The trailhead parking does fill up from about 9 – 2 on sunny summer weekends.

Snoqualmie Falls

The falls are gorgeous –  268 feet high with the width ranging from 50 to 150 feet, depending on water levels. When the water level is high, they’re really LOUD and powerful feeling. This is also the site of Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Project, built in the late 1890’s. It is one of the Pacific Northwest’s oldest hydropower facilities and the world’s first hydroelectric plant built completely underground. The museum (closed during pandemic) houses exhibits about hydroelectricity. Here’s a virtual tour video covering the history.

Near the top of the falls, next to the Salish Lodge, you’ll find two observations decks (aka “cliffside observation areas”) with great views of the falls, a gift shop and concessions. The observation deck is wheelchair accessible. There is a very steep trail down to the base of the falls. There is also a lower park area, with a hiking trail through forested wildlife habitat, a kayak and canoe launching area, historic interpretive displays and an observation platform for viewing the Falls.

Here is a map of the park and the parking areas. The parking lot by the gift shop is paid parking. The other 2 lots are free. The falls are lit up after dark.

Fort Casey on Whidbey Island

Fort Casey is a Washington state park. The fort was constructed in the late 1800s, equipped for seacoast fortification in the early 1900’s with large “disappearing guns.” Unfortunately the guns were quickly made obsolete with the advent of airplanes. The guns you see there now were transferred from the Philippines in the 1960’s. The Fort was used as a training facility up to the mid-1940s. (More history.)

You can climb the batteries, peer into catacomb like bunkers (bring a flashlight!) and climb up for a close look at the guns. You’re given pretty much free rein of the facility, without a lot of protective barriers. It was great for my 9 year old, but if you have little ones, they’ll need close supervision. (More on what it’s like to visit.)

There’s 1.8 miles of hiking trails (part of the 1200 mile Pacific NW National Scenic Trail) and amazing views of Admiralty Inlet which connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Puget Sound (expect it to be windy!!). We went there in the summer of 2020, and after being isolated at home for a long time, it was lovely to be in a wide open space, where we could see families out enjoying the day from a very distanced social distance.

A bonus for the mechanically-inclined (a downside for those who like the quiet of nature) is that the U.S. Navy does flight training at the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey, with 100,000 takeoffs and landings per year, day and night. With noise levels of 100 decibels, you won’t miss them!

You can camp at Fort Casey’s 100 acres, or you can stay in their historical buildings of the Fort Casey Inn. (Read about the experience.)

Ballard Locks

Note; as of February 2021, many of the visitors’ facilities at the locks are closed due to the pandemic. Check their website for updates.

The Hiram M Chittenden Locks, completed in 1917, connect Lake Washington with Puget Sound. They carry more boat traffic than any other locks in the U.S. Boats ranging in size from one man kayaks to 760 foot boats can travel through there. When a boat enters the locks from the lake, the water level is lowered 20 – 22 feet before a boat makes its way into the Sound. You can find a lot more about how the locks work and about their history on the WIkipedia page.

From June to September, you may be able to see salmon on the fish ladders. There is also the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden, a beautiful nature oasis. Read visitor reviews. More photos.

McAuliffe Park in Kirkland

This old farm homestead has windmills, old gas pumps, old farm equipment and large pea patch of working gardens. Read my whole post on McAuliffe Park. Also, as you walk, keep your eye out for Kirkland Rocks.

Monte Cristo Trail

You may also be interested in the Monte Cristo hike in Snohomish County. “Remnants of an old railway turntable … a group of boys pushed one end of the rusty girder, swinging it in circular fashion.” “Rusted-out bed frames, mining tools and pieces of railroad track and railway cars, among other relics, are randomly strewn around, as if they’re props for a play. “

Related Ideas

All playgrounds are full of simple machines. You can point out to a child the inclined planes (slides, ramps), the screws (spiral staircases or ladders), the levers (swings, seesaws), and the wheels on axles (merry go rounds).

If you’re looking for an excuse to go on a quest around downtown Seattle, check out this guide to all the public clocks in Seattle.

This Seattle Times articles shares a few hikes with fun discoveries at the end.

If you know of other great opportunities in the Seattle area for combining some time in nature / the great outdoors with something mechanical or engineering related, please add a comment below!

More Local Parks

For the nature lovers, you may also want to check out these posts: