42 Creative Ways Parents Around The U.S. Are Salvaging Summer

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There’s a good chance that whatever visions you had for your family’s summer of 2020 have been significantly altered. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, lots of us are without the child care, let alone entertainment, we normally count on this time of year. Many of us are exhausted, anxious, and depressed from parenting these last few weeks, figuring out how best to explain police brutality, racism, and systemic injustice to our kids. How do we even go about even thinking about how to make it a fun-in-the-sun season?

What is a family summer without beaches or water parks or day camp or block parties? Without even the temporary feeling of being carefree? Nobody knows what lies ahead, but some parents have some plans and ideas for keeping the spirit of summer alive this year.

We expanded our quarantine pod.

Some families have decided to open up their quaran-team and join with other families to keep their kids happy and occupied. Jena Farnsworth, a mom of two in Chicago, has enlarged her own circle since the epidemic started to include her brother’s family and some other close friends, resulting in a squad that includes eight kids. Together, the families travel to a nearby lake house and at home create their own fun, trading off ideas for theme nights and other ways to stay busy and entertained.

The key to making it work is trust and transparency, Farnsworth says, noting that her family and friends, some of whom have had COVID-19 and lost people to it, take it seriously. “Nobody shares their food, and all the kids know to use your own bowl, drink your own drinks,” she notes. “We keep all that separated and labeled.” It’s not only important to quarantine with people you trust: Let others know if you’re rolling with a bigger group, as that may affect their decisions to socialize with you. “I’m sure people have avoided us because we have been interacting with four to eight people. We are being very careful, trying to do what we think was right while keeping our mental health.”

We’re camping out (and in).

“I think backyard campouts are about to be the new sourdough,” one parent told me. Many families are dusting off the old tent and installing fire pits to recreate the camp feel without worrying about other people. Sans yard, you can always camp out in your living room, where it’ll never rain.

Traditional camping trips are still on the table in many regions — KOA has implemented new cleaning regulations for its rentable cabins, for instance. British Columbia mom Teresa Douglas plans on taking her family to Chilliwack Lake, taking advantage of their furnished RVs. “The RV stays there and they have all the supplies ready to go for you,” she says. “You clean it at the end and then [their staff] comes in and does a deep clean.”

Other parents are focusing on day trips to get their families active and outside, packing up portable hammocks, bikes, and kayaks. (I have a friend whose boyfriend manages a car-rack-installation store in Skokie, Illinois, and she says business has been booming.) “We plan to get outdoors with a fun outing once per week for safe socially distant field trips,” says Amber Robinson, of Gainesville, Florida. On her itinerary: A drive-through safari, scalloping, hiking, biking, berry picking, and gator and bat watching.

We bought the big toy.

“We bought a swing set, mini trampoline, and now just need a robot that will play with my kid,” jokes Carly Oishi, a mom of one in Chicago. With a question mark hanging over the reopening of playgrounds, beaches, and public pools, many aim to make their outdoor spaces as enticing as possible. Recent purchases among parents I polled range from the simple, like badminton and tetherball sets, slip and slides, splash pads and baby pools, to the more over-the-top, like bounce houses, zip lines, trampolines, and Swim Spas. Handy families can make their own “water parks” with PVC pipe. My family invested in an outdoor dining table in the name of dining alfresco, and if the kids work on Legos or even their Kindles outside, that counts as outside time, right?

Don’t have a yard? Colleen Ross, a New York mom of two, has gotten big returns on 6'7"-by-9'3" patch of fake grass she purchased for $165 to give her two young kids a feel of summer even when local parks feel too crowded for comfort. Her family takes the grass to their building rooftop on nice days, she says, “which is awesome because our dining room table does triple duty as home office/home school/Play-Doh station. The kids can go barefoot if they like. We roll it up when it rains and staked it with a hammock and a couple nice planters borrowed from our neighbor.” When the weather’s crummy, they enjoy the feel of the outside, inside, sometimes using the grass as a miniature golf course. “It sounds corny, but it really transformed the space and the green (albeit fake) really boosted our spirits. We did a lot of Zoom calls with friends from our ‘new backyard,’” says Ross.

We acquired a new family member.

Early in the pandemic, animal shelters and breeders reported a massive surge in inquiries from quarantined Americans desperate for non-human companionship. My family technically brought home our dog shortly before the pandemic hit, and while he’s no angel (I’ve yelled at him to quit digging a hole while typing this sentence), he turned out to be a welcome distraction. Petting a puppy is a restorative break from reading the news (again).

Others have opted for animals who contribute to their food supply. Jill Thiers-Belden, mom of one in Tucson, purchased four chickens for her family, which live in a coop that her husband constructed. “We have the pandemic to thank, in a weird way, because we would not have had the time to pay attention to them,” she says. “I love them so much!” Oh, and her daughter likes them, too. “She goes and checks on them, and we give them watermelon rinds and ice water to keep cool.”

For those without the room or the budget or the sinuses for cats and dogs, consider some fluttering, colorful friends (and nature lessons) via companies like Insect Lore. Caterpillars arrive in a plastic container and kids can study their life cycle and get some lessons on animal care after butterflies emerge from their chrysalis.

We’re growing things. Or getting dirty, at least.

Evan Porter, an Atlanta father of one (soon to be two), has been turning socially distanced walks into nature camps with his 5-year-old daughter. “We try to find as many creatures as possible,” he says. “We discovered a family of tadpoles growing in a stream near our house and we've become expert slug finders. We'll supplement this with learning some fun facts about the animals we find, naming them, and checking on them.”

Porter is also using the summer to give his daughter a botany lesson, giving her her own plants to tend to. “These days she's taking care of a few pots of wildflowers along with a fairy garden set that grows some simple plants,” he says. “It's a great, hands-on learning experience for her, keeps us entertained outside, and gives us something to look forward to each day.” (Families without outside space: Try indoor gardening kits and apps for identifying plants, leaves, and birds.)

Petra Sheaffie, a mom of two in Evanston, Illinois, has dedicated a part of her yard for her kids to do what tickles their fancy. “They have been given permission to dig in certain areas of the yard and currently have a knee-deep hole that they have lined with clay that they call their pool/clay mine,” she says. “Basically, I am letting the kids totally trash the backyard, because that's all we've got to work with.”

We’re putting kids to work.

“We have some renovations at our new house, so my kids will be learning to rip up carpet and paint walls,” says Lane Howard, a mom of two in Evanston, Illinois. “I’m not sure I’m saving their summer, but it will save me a little money!”

Stephen Dypiangco, a father of three in Los Angeles, has designed an internship for his two older kids after one of his daughters asked if she could help him with his startup, Dadventures (she had to interview for the job, naturally). “Each kid will work on special projects and presentations as they learn about areas of business like marketing, sales, and finance,” he says. He sees it as a way to bring work time and child care together, keep the kids busy, and maybe teach them a thing or two about what Dad does. His wife Ann’s favorite part of the program? “It's my project and not another thing for her to pay attention to right now.”

Keith Norsym, a father of two in the Denver area with an engineering background, designed and built an indoor climbing wall with his active kids to keep them moving this summer. “It involved a piece of plywood, star nuts, climbing holds, bolts, and wood screws, and sandpaper, some measurement, a bit of drilling, and some elbow grease,” Norsym says. He estimates the supplies cost $150 to $200, plus free family labor. (Non-engineers: Pay up for professional installation.)

Norsym and his business partner run the franchise Kids Science Labs, which, like other kids' programs, has pivoted to a virtual learning experience in the wake of COVID-19. Time will tell how responsive kids will be to virtual camps, although there’s already been a market for monthly delivery projects like Kiwi Crate, Little Passports, and Raddish. Whether in an attempt to avoid brain drain or just to maintain a sense of structure this summer, other parents are going more practical, too, going for virtual tutoring from local instructors or companies like Outschool.

We’re sharing from afar.

Susan Kirby-Smith, a mother of one in North Carolina, made an Amazon error that she hopes to turn into a socially distant pool party. “I bought a pool for the backyard. It's a pretty good size in the inflatables category - 10 feet across. But in the process of ordering from Amazon and changing slightly which one I wanted, I accidentally ordered two that are almost the same,” she says. “I thought I would return the second one but I'm thinking about keeping it so that if another family comes over, they can socially distance in their very own pool.”

Audrey Brasich, a Vancouver mom, found a way to keep her kids moving and engaged while helping out a local teacher also affected by the pandemic. “I know a mom who’s not only a teacher and a coach, but also has sporty kids at the same school as my own,” she says. “I asked her if she knew of anyone doing small, outdoor fitness classes for kids. [She told me about] a young P.E. teacher and personal trainer who’s just been laid off.” Brasich, her friend, and the P.E. teacher are now in the process of planning a training schedule for just a handful of kids. “We’ll pay her directly as we go. It will be no contact, social distance, outdoor training with a fun element of competition, like races and completing individual challenges.”

We’re channeling our inner camp counselor — or not.

Organized, optimistic parents are going with Camp Mom and Dad. Evanston, Illinois, mom of three Ely Lemus hopes to recreate traditional day camp structure through planned themes and trips. “I’m thinking on salad week, hand craft week, and we will go try to use everything we have in the apartment like old magazines and clothes we don’t use anymore.” she says. “This summer will be crazy but fun I think.”

“Each week I plan to have a few pool/sprinkler days, some forest preserve days, some movie days, and break up those plans by morning and afternoon,” says Elizabeth Harding, a mom of two in Chicago. “If we can make a day trip or two, we will.”

In my family, “camp” is going to be an extremely loosely structured affair. We have a backyard, toys, a dog, and that new table. We have wide front steps that lend themselves to social distanced visits. Otherwise… TBD? It felt like in summers past, some parenting “experts” bemoaned the over-structured summer, wondering why kids couldn’t just be free-range summer kids, running on boredom and imagination and simple pleasures like in the so-called good old days. Under normal circumstances, that’s easier said than done. Parents need to get work done and kids need supervision and structure. But this could be the perfect summer to try out nothing.