Right about this time, your bag of summer-fun tricks may be nearing empty. Time for a little refill! Ideas for fun stuff to do with your kids that reach beyond the standbys can be cheap, fun and easy. Some are as close as your backyard, others are day-trip destinations. We're betting just reading through our inspiration list will jumpstart some creative ideas of your own.
Yes, you do that fall apple-picking outing every year, but July is peak blueberry season. Blueberries are easy for little hands to pick-bushes are just 4-6 feet tall and there are no prickly thorns like those on some other berry bushes. Really wee ones can get the berries down low, while you aim high (and help them get what they're picking into the buckets).
We like Plow Creek Farm in Tiskilwa, just a two-hour drive from downtown Chicago. Run by three Mennonite families, the farm has a picnic area and the bushes are on a picturesque, grassy, blueberry hill. Make this a morning destination: It's more pleasant to pick before the sun's high in the sky. Bring your own bucket or bowls to tote the berries home in. The farm provides water to keep you hydrated as you pick, but you may want to pack a picnic lunch and some extra water bottles.
You can also stop in pretty Princeton for lunch (just off the interstate, 15 minutes from the farm) when you're done picking. Visit www.plowcreek.org/farm, read the little "how to pick blueberries" tutorial and get directions. Call before you go to make sure there are still berries. Additional U-pick berry farm listings can be found at ChicagoParent.com.
Give kids a pile of assorted "stuff" along with the challenge to build a robot, action figure "set" or playhouse and they're guaranteed to get engaged.
If you don't happen to have a pile of scrap lumber, poles, tubes, plastic buckets, tiles, etc., hanging around, head to the Chicago Resource Center's Creative Reuse Warehouse. For $5, you can fill a bag full of whatever odds, ends and objects strike your kids' fancy. The assorted flotsam and jetsam available changes almost daily, so you never know what you might find there. Prices are also negotiable; you can bargain for a better deal on the stuff-good to know if you've got a bunch of kids.
Tip: If younger children want to hammer along with the big kids, but you're nervous about nails, give the littler ones a box of wooden golf tees and a toy plastic or wooden hammer. Puncture a big cardboard box with some tiny holes. Poke the tip of each tee into a hole and let them nail the box full of tees.
Open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and closed Sunday, Chicago's Resource Center is located at 222 E. 135th Place. Visit resourcecenterchicago.org for more information and directions.
Splatter-painting a big sheet hung from a clothes line is a good "permission to get messy" alternative to playing in the mud. Get some big bottles of tempera paint, fat brushes and some plastic plates to put the paints on. Standing a few feet from the sheet, shake dipped brushes at the sheet to splatter-paint fun patterns. The finished sheets provide a colorful backdrop for a backyard family talent show, or make a colorful cover for a card table "tent."
Another cheap/free backyard play option kids never tire of is the obstacle course. Let siblings (or whichever kids you have in your backyard that day) each take a turn setting up the course or have them set it up together: Chairs, wagons, a box of balls, pile of stuffed animals and silly hats/costumes all come in handy.
Obstacles can range from things you run around, balance on, jump in or out of and crawl under. There can also be "tasks," i.e. toss each ball in the bucket, or each stuffed animal in the bushel basket, put on the silly hat before running around the chair, etc. Parental involvement can be as easy as shouting "mark, set, go!" and timing who's fastest through each run of the course or putting the kibosh on any dangerous obstacles your older kids will inevitably try to set up. Have a huge box of Popsicles on hand for the after-party.
The surprise element makes this more fun, so shhhhh! Get your spouse or a friend to take your kids for two hours, hurry back home and convert your backyard into Camp Out-back. Set up the tent, colored lights, a fire pit and camp chairs. Get the grill going. Then usher your kids back to the now anything-but-boring backyard.
Bonus? You won't have to deal with those nasty campground bathrooms for your shower and putting on pajamas. And dinner cleanup will be a lot easier than pumping water from a cold spigot over some dirt. A little extra pre-prep to enhance the event? Pick up the makings for s'mores from the grocery store and a nice assortment of scary stories (or story CDs) from the library.
Chances are, you've made a jaunt to the Illinois State Fair (the two biggies of 2010 are the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, Aug. 13-22, and the DuQuoin State Fair in DuQuoin, Aug. 27-Sept 6) but did you know that July and August are packed with dozens of county fairs, too?
There are more than 50 fairs happening in Illinois this month and another several dozen in August. The fairs are one of the most exciting places that kids can view a wide range of the Midwest's finest farm animals-cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, goats, poultry and more, up close and smell-able. There are truck and tractor pulls, hay-bale-throwing and husband-calling contests, pig races, horse shows, harness races, midways, rides, concerts and every possible carnival food-on-a-stick. The fairs are also a great place for urban kids to check out what their peers in other parts of the state can do in 4-H. Visit the various agriculture, food and hobbyist exhibits to see ribbon-winning entries. The website, agr.state.il.us, has a complete list, dates and links to the various county fairs.
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