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Planning a carefree summer with kids

Simple pleasures in life are (almost) free.

Simple pleasures in life are (almost) free. Photo Credit: iStock

There's no way around it -- summer camp can be quite expensive. And in a slow-churning economy, many families looking to save money are foregoing camp and will be filling their children's days with less expensive -- but still fun and perhaps even educational -- alternative activities.

Here are tips from parents, grandparents and mental health experts who say that with creativity and support it's possible not only to expose children to new things but to give them summer memories they will cherish while filling those oh-so-long days.

Stay cool, stay local

No matter where you live on Long Island, there are vast resources to tap into within a small radius of your home, including library programs, beaches and events at parks and museums.

Anne Young of Floral Park, says she uses the summer to expose her 6-year-old son, Jack, to as much variety as possible. That means art classes that are free with museum admission at the Long Island Children's Museum and watching magicians, reptile shows and theater in the county parks that cost nothing. She takes him to a local bowling alley where kids bowl free, often meeting friends with their kids there, where the parents pay a nominal fee.

In addition to using the village pool, Young takes her son to indoor skating rinks to escape thebrutal heat or rain. When her son said he wanted to try tennis, Young came up with an inexpensive solution -- contacting gym teachers from local schools, many of whom will offer lessons in nearby parks at a reasonable price.

Strength in numbers

Setting up an email list of parents who might want to meet you at the beach or the aquarium can be a huge help, says Lisa Schilling, an East Northport mom who keeps her kids' summers unstructured yet filled with outdoor fun. She'll let friends know if she takes the kids to the ocean beaches, on a picnic at the sculpture garden at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn or the Long Island Game Farm in Manorville.

Every other Friday night, Schilling and her friends and their families host a potluck theme night in rotating homes with games on the lawn for the kids. "Sometimes it's a Mexican theme with piñatas," Schilling said, "or pub night with finger food, mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers." She hosted a 1970s-theme gathering at her house and had the kids tie-dye shirts. She says that hosting Halloween in the summer goes over particularly well.

Grandma Camp

"I'm going to have Grandma Camp. Tell your friends that's what you did this summer." That's what Carolyn Terzulli told her three grandchildren when they announced several summers ago that they didn't want the structure of camp. Terzulli watches the grandchildren, now 8, 11 and 15, three times a week while her daughter is at work. She keeps a folder on the desk of her Freeport home filled with announcements of activities and ideas, such as the new Pompeii exhibit at Discovery Times Square.

Past activities have included peach picking at Davis Peach Farm in Wading River, hiking in the Norman J. Levy Park and Preserve, going to Belmont Lake State Park for the rowboats and day trips to New York City.

On the last day of Grandma Camp, Terzulli's best friend, Carolyn Jimenez, brings her grandchildren over for pudding painting. "I make bowls and bowls of chocolate pudding," Terzulli says. "I give the children paintbrushes and let them paint each other and themselves and then they hose each other down. It's the big finale."

Get creative

Use your outdoor space to host a backyard circus. Children can choose roles -- someone can be a lion with a headband of streamers made of crepe paper. Another can be a clown. Use hula hoops, water balloons, building blocks and have parents or older kids set up stations where children can throw the hula hoops over a broom handle.

Or have a scavenger hunt. Older and younger children can make a list of things to look for on a walk on the beach or at a park, for example, a heart-shaped rock or colorful feather. Let the kids show their treasures and vote for the most unusual item.

A favorite summer pastime is getting the kids to start keeping scrapbooks. "You don't have to purchase anything," says Jimenez, a retired art teacher. "Just staple together copy paper and have the kids put in seashells, pieces of wood they find on the beach or leaves they can press in a phone book. Get them to write something like, 'I found this twig on Fire Island,' or, 'I found this bird feather at Jones Beach.'"

Go offline

Even though it's summer, the video games and computer will still try to pull kids into their tractor beam. Resist!

"We're not saying you can't use Facebook for the rest of the summer or no tweeting until September," says Steve Bennett, co-author, with his wife, Ruth Bennett, of the newly released "101 Offline Activities You Can Do With Your Child" ($19.95 at amazon.com).

The Bennetts' book details activities that spark children's creativity, especially on a rainy day or while trapped in a car. There's "Smiling Violations," where kids make tickets for outrageous offenses, such as ruining raindrops with windshield wipers. "Changing Rooms" has kids guess what item someone has altered while their eyes were closed.

Bennett stresses that no matter what game children are playing, they should be encouraged to change the rules and invent their own games.

What about bigger kids? "It's harder as they get older," Bennett admits. He's a fan of board games, such as The Settlers of Catan. If teenagers get hooked on a board game, they will often stay at it for hours, and it's a great way for parents to spend time with them, he says.

Inspire learning

There are indeed ways to keep kids learning during the summer, even provide life lessons in ways that are challenging yet fun.

These suggestions are from Rick Bavaria, senior vice president of Education Outreach for Sylvan Learning:

* Hike 100 miles. Really, 100 miles? Yes, he says, if you set a distance goal with your child, you can do the hike in smallish increments over the summer break, whether on nature trails or neighborhood routes. Have the kids keep a "hiking journal," noting in words and images interesting things they note along the way, the songs you sing, the people you met.

* Nurture the artist. Do you have an aspiring actor or musician? Then get that child together with other performer friends and encourage them to put on a play or concert. Kids can perform skits based on their favorite books. The musicians can play their own pieces or look for favorite selections to perform.

* What about a budding moviemaker? Inexpensive cameras and computer programs make it easy for kids to write their own scripts, rewrite scenes from favorite movies, create new endings for films or set scenes from favorite books on film.

* Help a neighbor. When a child helps someone in need -- whether it's with yardwork, shopping, walking pets or doing errands -- it nurtures empathy, responsibility and the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from helping others.

* Start a book club. It's one thing to nag your child to read that book on her school summer reading list. It's another to invite your kids' friends over to discuss with each other the books they're reading. Throw in pizza, swimming and a movie and call it a great day.

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