The kids have been daydreaming about spring break since the snow days -- pining for sun-filled days during which they plan to do absolutely nothing. But if you're one of the many parents planning a staycation this year, you know very well that it will take all of one hour of daytime TV for the chorus of "I'm booooored" to start echoing through your house.
Our advice: Be prepared. Check out our list of fun, time-consuming yet still inexpensive ideas to help your family avoid the spring break blues.
1. Go on the hunt
Organize a neighborhood scavenger hunt.
The No. 1 ingredient for a successful scavenger hunt is safety. J.T. Tabron, a Fort Worth dad, says the first thing to do when planning a hunt is to let the neighbors know what's going to happen. No one deserves to answer the door to a group of children demanding household oddities without fair warning. As well, Tabron says that if you, like him, live in a neighborhood without sidewalks, post signs to let motorists know to be on the lookout for children on the streets.
The No. 2 ingredient for success? Coming up with a really bizarre list. You may even inspire a history lesson by including ancient technology such as cassette tapes and $2 bills.
The rules are simple: Separate the neighborhood kids and their friends into groups of three or five and set them off in different directions with a copy of your scavenger-hunt list -- along with a parent chaperone for each group, of course. The group that gets back to home base with the most items at the end of the time limit wins -- and gets dibs on the pizza that will inevitably be served at the finish line. See the start of a creative list below.
Blue birthday candle
Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon
Expired bottle of mustard
Issue of People magazine
Jar of baby food
2. Host a movie/game theme night
Renting a movie and microwaving popcorn is for any old Friday night. Renting a classic and coupling it with a themed game and snacks -- that's a spring break specialty. Here, three ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factor: Start off the night with a rousing game of an oldie but goodie: Candy Land. For the snack, well, it's obvious. Candy, candy and more candy. Raid the local supermarket to fill colorful bowls with your children's (and your) favorite treats. Just don't forget the Everlasting Gobstoppers. Make it a double feature by coupling the classic with the 2005 Johnny Depp remake, then have everyone cast a vote for their favorite.
Lady and the Tramp: For munchies, you can go with the always-classic "dogs," but we suggest the more movie-specific spaghetti and meatballs. For pre-movie entertainment, you can have a drink-like-a-dog race: Fill new, inexpensive dog bowls with Jell-O and see who can, on their hands and knees, lap it up the quickest. Or you can go with a homemade, less-messy pin-the-tail-on-the-dog game. Either way, you're sure to have a doggone good time.
Fantastic Mr. Fox: Work up an appetite by gathering in the front yard for a game of Red Light, Green Light to celebrate the movie's stop-motion animation technique. Or you can try Whack Bat, the game played in the movie that involves three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners and a player at bat -- that is, if you're willing to risk the flaming pine cones (Note: Of course, you'll have to watch the movie first to see how the game is played). Then, gather the troops inside for a feast of roasted chicken and cider, the very fare that gets the sly Mr. Fox in a heap of trouble in this Roald Dahl retelling. Finish off the night with the feature presentation that is sure to be a favorite for the whole family.
3. Have a jam session
No, we're not talking about a Rock Band marathon, or even the spring break feat of spending an entire day in one's jammies. We're talking about making good old-fashioned fruit jam. Doreen Krebs, mother of two and certified kid expert (she's the principal at Parkview Elementary School in Keller), says that cooking is not only fun for children but is also educational.
When following a recipe with children, Krebs said, it is important to point out measurements, as well as the different states the substance goes through. In the jam recipe below, note when the liquid boils and have each kid try stirring as the mixture starts to thicken.
"It's important for kids to learn steps to a whole, and cooking is a great way to do that," Krebs says.
We chose a simple recipe, from Linda Ziedrich's The Joy of Jams, Jellies and Other Preserves, but making jam does require some time spent over a hot stove. We suggest letting the young ones smash the berries and having the adults take over when the heat kicks in.
While you finish off the recipe, set the children up with markers, glitter, paint, glue and sticker-back mailing labels to create customized jam-jar tags. Just don't forget to bake some biscuits, so that by day's end, the kids can taste the fruit of their labor.
4. Workin' at the carwash
Nothing tires out kids faster than a day in the sun. Add a little work to the mix, and you're sure to see your newly business-savvy children tuckered out by day's end.
Fort Worth dad J.T. Tabron says that any money-making endeavor is sure to be a hit with tweens. A recent neighborhood garage sale proved his point. "The kids were up at 5:30 [a.m.] helping," Tabron said. "Some of the younger kids sold lemonade, and the older ones had sections where they were selling items of theirs. They got to keep the money, and they worked for it."
The prep work for a carwash is easy -- let your kids make posters advertising their front-yard services to neighbors. You can help them decide whether to charge a flat rate, or to simply wash cars out of kindness while, of course, keeping a tip jar in plain view.
From there, all you need is the garden hose, buckets, suds and a stack of old towels.
5. Garden projects
Celebrate spring by doing some good old-fashioned yard work. Your children won't likely get excited about mulching and weeding, but they will enjoy these fun projects, tested and approved by Kay Matlock, store manager at Calloway's Nursery in Fort Worth.
Feed the birds: It's a project that has been occupying children for decades, and you'll likely have most of the supplies (pine cones, peanut butter, yarn and birdseed) already on hand. First, let your kids scour neighborhood lawns and parks for pine cones. Second, have them coat the cones with globs of peanut butter. Third, let them roll the sticky cones in birdseed. Finally, use colorful yarn to hang the homemade bird feeders from trees in the back yard.
If you want to take it a step further, we recommend buying a book (Backyard Birds of Texas by Bill Fennimore and Birds of Texas by Stan Tekiela come highly recommended) to help your children identify the birds they see snacking.
Tomato time: This project is simple and tasty. Matlock says children love to get their hands messy, and planting tomatoes in a container allows them to do so without wreaking havoc on your yard.
You'll need: a 20-inch-by-20-inch container with holes poked in the bottom for good drainage (Matlock said any old container will work, a storage bin, a crate, even a mop bucket); soil (Matlock recommends a light potting soil with a peat-moss base); and a tomato plant. The instructions are easy -- pack the tomato plant with soil in the container and place in an area that gets at least four to six hours of sunlight each day. Have your children put it all together, and let them be responsible for twice-weekly waterings.
Come summer, you'll have a crop of tomatoes perfect for pizza sauce, salsa and salads.
Faces of the garden: This project will bring out the creativity in your children. Matlock says she has used the craft to entertain customers' kids countless times.
You'll need grass seed, soil, clean soup cans and craft supplies -- markers or paint, construction paper, googly eyes and glue should be a good start. The idea is to turn the cans into faces, with grass (or "hair") eventually growing out of the top.
First, let your children get creative with the faces, then have them fill the can with soil and plant the seeds. Water and let the grass grow. Or you can plant bedding flowers in the cans to see instant, more colorful hair.
Small-batch strawberry jam
1 pound fresh or frozen and thawed strawberries, hulled and mashed
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1. In a 12-inch nonreactive skillet, combine all the ingredients.
2. Stir the contents over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, stirring and skimming off the foam, until a drop mounds slightly in a chilled dish.
3. Store the cooled jam in a tightly capped jar in the refrigerator.