Desert Companion

Hands-on summer

When those searing summer days have us all stuck inside, it’s tempting to let the kids go screen-wild because, well, it’s just easier. Resist! This summer, I challenge you to challenge yourselves and your kids: Limit screen time to the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommended maximum of two hours per day — for optimal physical, mental and emotional health. Here are 21 summer boredom-busters to keep little bodies moving, imaginations working and hands way busier than they’d ever be thwipping away at an iPad.

1. Start the season with a box of fun summer things to do. Give each kid a shoebox with a slit in the top to decorate, wrap, paint or bedazzle. Have them write down all the cool things they want to do on slips of paper — run through the sprinklers, tour Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef, canoe on the water. Then, once a week, or as often as you want, reach into the box for your next big adventure.

2. Summer means popsicles. Believe it or not, since our freezers serve ’em up ready-made, kids today don’t know what ice cube trays are. “I’ve got an awesome invention,” my son said, when our ice dispenser was on the fritz and we had to do things old-school. “Ice cubes made of juice!” Pick up a few trays and some toothpicks from the dollar store and watch how excited this summer staple gets them. (Grab some toy bugs, too, for the old fly-in-the-cube gag giggles.)

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3. It’s way too hot to go outside, but when you must, you want your kids sporting hats. Of course, they won’t want to — unless it’s a hat of their own creation. Pick up plain white caps and some fabric markers, fabric paint or even fabric spray paint from the craft store, and let the kids design their own originals. Pull out the fabric paint again for older kids to design unique pillowcases to pack for summer camp. Let them design matching T-shirts in bright neon colors to easily spot them when you head to Disneyland or any other busy attractions.  

4. It’s sort of astonishing how many children have never actually hammered a nail. While our palm trees and tiny yards aren’t ideal for treehouses, you can teach your kids to build classic birdhouses from scratch. Find the short list of supplies you’ll need and easy instructions online. This kind of hands-on project is so entertaining and educational — measuring and precision is important to the overall design and to little thumbs. Paint them up to make gifts for friends and neighbors.

5. DEAR time is a summer ritual in our home. No matter how old they are, when I shout out, “DEAR time!” everybody (including me — because modeling is key!) must Drop Everything And Read, for at least 20 minutes — although a good book in a cozy corner can entertain the older kids for hours. DEAR also makes a good nap primer for youngsters. Another bonus? Experts agree that kids who read in the summer make gains, while those who don’t lose up to 22 percent of what they learned the previous school year.     

6. If you get a new air conditioner, washer/dryer or new grill, tell the delivery guy you want the box intact. You’ll be amazed at how far corrugated cardboard and a child’s imagination will go. Two days later, if they start to bore of it, show up with the markers and a box cutter. Ask them where they want the windows and breathe new boredom-busting life into their pretend play.

7. Finally, if it’s kept its shape, get out the box cutter again. This time make a puppet theater. Let the kids paint it. Make curtains out of an old pillow case, tacked with brads. Put a modern twist on an old favorite by personalizing puppets like never before. Day 1: Go digital-camera-happy while the kids get crazy in home costumery — towels for capes, colander-hats, Dad’s ties, Mom’s purses and shoes. While they play their charades, or once they’ve gone to bed, blow up, print up, and cut out your favorite pics to make popsicle-stick puppets. Day 2: Puppet shows, all afternoon!   

8. Paper a wall, as high as little arms reach, with butcher or craft paper, for a mural project that can last all week long. Heck, you could even start a new mural, with a different theme — ocean life, desert creatures, our family vacation — each week. Arm little ones with crayons, markers, stickers and glitter glue, or paper-protect the floor, too, and let them paint. Call it graffiti art and even the older, cooler kids will want a wall.

9. Water balloons are a summer classic! But balloons make for some pretty awesome, if messy, art, too. Blow up balloons, set them on poster boards on the floor, and let the kids drip and drizzle washable paint all over them. Before it dries, hand out wooden skewers for balloon-popping, giggle-rousing, abstract-art fun. (This is a good project for the backyard, where splatters won’t matter.)

10. Play-Doh all alone can get boring. That’s why the toy companies are always creating new Play-Doh activity sets. This summer save yourself some cash and watch Play-Doh playtime multiply by simply giving up your kitchen. Aprons, rolling pins, cookie cutters and a pinch of artistic flair produce some of the most beautiful (if inedible) cookie creations you might imagine. And the cookies you’ll be pretending to binge on are entirely pretend calorie-free!

11.“Hmm, conversation starter ... ” my daughter said, tapping a thinking-finger to her lips when I told her to put away her smartphone. It’s a sad fact of our digital age that we no longer communicate as well as we did. Gather the kids to write 100 conversation prompts on index cards. Encourage thoughtful questions — If you could change your name to anything, what would it be? What would you do if you saw a kid being bullied at school? Where is your happy place? — to pull from a box at family meals. Watch everyone sit up straighter as your tech-free dinner conversation grows livelier.

12. Save two dying arts at one time: letter-writing and cursive-writing. Traditionally, summer is the perfect time for pen pals, and Vegas has the best postcards for mailing. Stock up on postcards, funky note cards, specialty paper and stamps, and teach your kids to catch up on correspondence the old-fashioned way. Write letters to grandma, your old neighbors in the Midwest, last year’s teachers. Everyone loves to get mail that isn’t junk or bills! And you know that at least grandma will write back. 

13. I know, I know, Pottery Barn says lemons are the centerpiece du jour, but I’ve always preferred a big basket or a glass vase of markers to keep the kids entertained while I cook — it beats sticking them in front of the television. Set a sheet of white, legal-sized paper at each place as a placemat (I like to stock the real deal in my kitchen; 50 paper placemats runs about $3.45 online) for art, doodling, poetry and Hangman. The key to this is to keep it fresh; mix up marker colors and sizes — or replace them altogether with a basket of Lego pieces. Rotate weekly. 

14. Speaking of centerpieces, take markers to the fruit in your basket to make fun figures out bananas, creatures out of oranges, or aliens out of watermelons. Let them get creative. Thumbtacks make big eyes. Pipe cleaners are perfect monster limbs on a potato. Or use toothpicks to attach marshmallow feet to an apple. Creative free play is the key to learning, so why not let them play with their food, after all?

15. Science projects never fail to intrigue, and science-y ideas abound on the Internet. For younger children, let them experiment with food coloring in water. Show older kids how to make a potato clock or grow an avocado tree. (You remember, don’t you?) And if they still aren’t enthused, dare them to drop a wee Mentos into a bottle of soda pop. (Be sure to send them outside first!)

16. Lemonade stands are a summer favorite. Teach your kids philanthropy by squeezing lemons for a cause. (First, teach them how to make lemonade from scratch.) After one particularly devastating hurricane, my kids raised more than $500 when they asked neighbors to match their lemonade earnings. Between the posters they designed, the squeezing, the stirring, the cookies they baked, the actual selling, the fund-matching door knocking, addressing the envelope to the Red Cross and mailing it, it was a full day’s project that left them feeling pretty good about themselves. 

17. A tall glass of lemonade in the Vegas summer is going to leave a ring in your coffee table. Mod Podge button coasters are all the rage in kids’ crafts, easy to make, and cute as several buttons. All you need is wax paper cut in the desired shape of your coaster (circles, squares, hearts); a brushed layer of Mod Podge glue; a layer of assorted buttons; three more layers of Mod Podge and some drying time, before you peel away the wax paper. (A simpler version uses felt, hot glue and buttons.)

18. Summer is the perfect time to teach kids to cook, or at least build, with food. My daughter’s specialty is an ice cream cake that she prepares for all our summer potlucks. It’s easy for kids to make on their own, and it’s always a hit. Start with a layer of ice cream sandwiches laid flat in a 9 x 13-inch pan; coat with a generous layer of caramel sauce and cover with a large tub of Cool Whip. Then add a generous layer of chocolate sauce, sprinkle with Heath bits and freeze for 45 minutes. There are hundreds of other recipes that tiny hands can manage from fruit kabobs to layered dips.

19. Nothing screams carefree summer fun like a kid in a brightly colored, tie-dyed starburst T-shirt and a cut-off jeans. But there are an array of tie-dye patterns your kids can choose from, including polka dots and lightning bolts. Pick up a tie-dye kit from the craft store or go old-school with directions from the web. Either way, these T’s are likely to be your kids’ summer favorites.

20. Sure, the days are hot, but if you get up and out early enough, you’ll be able to breathe the desert air before it turns lung-scorching. There are about 67 parks in Las Vegas and another 58 in Henderson — some of them even have water features. Tack a map of your city to the garage wall where your kids can reach it to mark with pushpins or crayons the parks you’ve visited. Make it a goal to get to all of them before school starts again.

 21. So, the kids have been building birdhouses all summer and they’ve become pretty handy with their saws and hammers. It’s time to move onto bigger projects: Think toy boxes, planters, step stools or even book shelves. Think their own workbenches or tool boxes. Or, better yet, they could build bookends for their new teachers — because I promise soon will start up again, sooner than you think.

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