Summer is coming and Chicago parents are preparing themselves for a long summer break of hanging out with their kids. If you feel ill-equipped, don't fret. Chicago has more than enough things to do with your kids that they won't even have time to watch t.v. or pick up the game controller. In a nation where children seem to be losing their abilities to entertain themselves, and school district after school district removes creative expression like art and theater classes from their curriculum, its sad to see so many parents not doing anything about it. Growing up, my siblings and I ran and played outside, made-up new worlds and pretended to be in different historical periods, rode our bikes, went to the park, and sang in the rain.
Teaching your children to be creative, resourceful, people-oriented, finding-joy-in-the-simple-things adults takes some creativity and discipline on your part as a parent.
Here are some ideas to get you started!
1. Go to the Park. Encourage your kids to exercise, jump and climb on the play structure, throw a ball around with them in the softball diamond, and play a round of basketball. Spending time with your kids in sports and exercise encourages them in a life-long habit of healthy choices. Walk, talk and explore different parks in Chicago- take a train ride to a new park as often as you can! There are over 500 parks in the Chicago area, all different and unique. Utilize the park facilities- some hold classes in boxing, gymnastics, swimming, arts and crafts, nature walks, pottery classes, and even have horse corrals or outdoor water parks. Exploring new places with your kids enables them to be inspired and broadens their imagination.
2. Go to the Beach. Make sandcastles, dig holes, use the water and make trenches that make the water run through like a river and fill a hole. Teach your kids engineering and science by explaining to them how the river-trench needs to be gradually deeper in order to encourage water to run through it, using gravity. Teach the water cycle, or how tide works. Build a castle and ask why building a structure with a narrower base than its crest falls over.
3. Check out the Lincoln Park Zoo or the Garfield Conservatory. Name the animals or find their names,and play "If they were your pet" (If they were your pet, what would you feed them? Where would they sleep? How would they get exercise? i.e. Monkey eats fruit, Hippo sleeps in a pond, Cheetah needs a big field to run and play in). Pretend you're in the habitat the plants are from. Act like a dinosaur in the Fern Room, or a lizard or snake in the Desert Room. Ask your children how they would be able to survive in the desert or the rainforest, and point out the banana trees and the orange trees. Interact with the children-centered parts of the Zoo and Conservatory. This will help encourage your child's interest in science and geography.
4. Visit the Library. Read books aloud using different voices or have your child "read" to you based on their perspective of what's going on in the pictures. Act out what's going on in your favorite books. Have older children find a historical fiction novel they want to read, and then browse the non-fiction picture encyclopedic and informational books on that historical period, and use younger children's books as ways to teach science, history, math, and art. (i.e. Read Ping, and then get books on China, try Chinese food, wear Chinese clothes or costume, listen to music and visit Chinatown. Read Eloise, and then visit the places she goes to in her books, draw pictures like the illustrator, and ask whether Eloise's choices were good or bad, and what her consequences are) Read the classics or award-winning books. Find a novel and read it aloud to all your children, like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, or Little House on the Prairie. This inspires your children to have a love of reading, learning new things, and expressing themselves.
5. Walk through an Art Museum or History Museum. Ask your child's favorite color(s) and find paintings and pieces of art that have those colors in them. Bring paper and crayons/colored pencils and try to make a picture that looks similar or in the same technique as the art around you. Ask for stories from their imagination containing different antique objects, and tell stories yourself. Get a story book from the library that is set in a historical period that is on display at the museum, and look at the real-life objects and weapons, etc that are portrayed in the book's illustrations or story. This encourages your children in artistic expression, and relating to history.
Check out my review on the completely free National Museum of Mexican Art.
6. Listen to Music. There are tons of places where you can find free music in all sorts of genres. One of those places is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. While listening to the music on the Pavilion's grass, ask your children to dance or act in interpretation of the emotional expression of the piece, or bring paper and crayons/colored pencils and have them draw. (A 3-ring binder makes a good portable easel, and colored pencils or crayons can be put inside with paper)
7. Play Games. Play Tag or Link Tag, ISpy or make-believe, and train-surf with your older kids in an empty "L" car or go on a scavenger hunt. The sky is the limit when it comes to finding fun things to do in Chicago with your kids! Let your kids even make up games and participate.
8. Have a Picnic. Have the kids buy the groceries, pack the lunch, make the sandwiches, pack the blanket and the plates. Then take them to the park, the beach, or anywhere at all and let them serve you their creativity. Talk, bring a book, play on the playground, have fun! See how heath conscious they are (if they pack all candy and cookies, or actually bring carrot sticks, fruit, make a balanced sandwich, etc) and don't forget to hug, kiss and thank them generously for the delicious meal!
9. Make Crafts- Go on a nature walk, or a city walk and collect different materials (Cardboard, leaves, pieces of wood, sand, etc). Bring glue, ziplock baggies, a jar or two, plastic spoons and a bag to carry the materials home or to a park bench and make an art piece using the outdoor collection.
10. And so much more! There are so many things you can do with your kids that don't require you to do much but be present and engaging. Most of the things above are cheap and easy to do without any extensive preparation. Do things catering to your children's tastes and interests, and don't forget to try new things often! It may end up turning out that you learn more from them than they learn from you. :)