Late July may be the peak of summer — with the highest temps and a nationwide flurry of family vacations — but come August, we’ll all be thinking ahead helplessly to the first day of school. The last half of summer can feel like a very steep slope, tiling precipitously into all the responsibility and uncertainty of the school year. For parents, in particular, these last precious weeks of summer are an opportunity to slow down, get outside and recharge.
Making the most of what remains of summer is an essential but underrated part of getting ready for the school year. These are the last hurrahs of summer, a back-to-school checklist — two-dozen awesomely fun summer-centric things to try, do, see, and enjoy before the school bell rings.
Attend An Outdoor Car Show
People who have cars worth showing off absolutely love to show off their cars. This is especially true of those who restore old cars, trick out rides with hydraulics, invest in custom paint jobs, or drop their Cutlass Supremes so low that they practically kiss the pavement. Summer is peak outdoor car show season, with gatherings taking place nearly every weekend and some occurring at regular intervals throughout the summer months.
While the Hubble Space Telescope regularly provides vivid images of our celestial neighbors, stargazing with the naked eye can still be pretty dang breathtaking. However, the challenge in getting a proper eyeful is finding a dark space away from street lamps, porch lights and flashing neon signs. Bringing snacks along for the trek is a must, and a bluetooth speaker to play the Star Wars soundtrack or Gustav Holst’s The Planets really helps round out the experience.
Have a Glow-Stick Party
Glow sticks are an underutilized scientific wonder. They’re nearly as mesmerizing as fire, much safer than an open flame, and can be used for a wide variety of entertaining activities. Glow-stick dance parties are always a hit. Glow-stick capture the flag adds a fun element to a classic summer game. And for parents who prefer more sedentary activities, making glow-stick art with the lights on and then flipping the switch when the pieces are ready for display makes for a great art show.
Take A Day Trip To A Campground
Camping is fun, but the amount of preparation and gear it takes to pull off an overnight trip with the whole family can feel overwhelming. But it’s possible to get most of the experience with a fraction of the work by hanging out at a campsite until dinner and s’mores are wrapped up, and then heading home to sleep in the comfort of your own bed or at a nearby hotel. Sleeping arrangements where kids are less likely to wake up with the sunrise and starting the day with a proper bathroom makes the experience feel far more doable.
Attend A Soccer Match
Baseball is America’s pastime. But soccer is its future. With Lionel Messi — arguably the world’s biggest soccer star — set to play for Inter Miami this year and the U.S. Women’s National Team ready to storm the World Cup, soccer is bound to be a hot topic around water coolers and playgrounds for the coming months. Tickets to actually see Messi will be tough to come by. But great atmospheres and quality games can be found at NWSL matches, lower division matches, and on college campuses throughout the country.
Plan A Farmer’s Market Scavenger Hunt
Late summer is prime farmer’s market season. Fruits and veggies are in season, bakers are selling creations made from freshly harvested grains, and vendors are trying to make that late-summer push before business slows in the fall. While a leisurely stroll through a local market is enjoyable in and of itself, making a game of the outing can up the fun factor. Have kids help make a list of items to find or buy. Options like “a vegetable to eat for dinner tonight” or “a fruit that looks good enough to be a dessert” will make an event out of the evenings meal.
It’s perhaps the easiest recipe on Earth: Freeze something delicious. Stick to fruit juices or purees and you can even justify letting the kids have a popsicle right before bed and another one when they wake up as a sneaky healthy breakfast dessert. And the way most kids eat popsicles, it can also provide an excuse to give them a bath.
Visit A County Fair
The two greatest qualities of country fairs is that there is always one in close proximity, and every county fair has a bit of its own flair. For instance, the Erie County Fair in Hamburg, New York, is an absolute behemoth, with more than a million attendees each year. The main attraction is a giant midway that lights up the night with an array of carnival rides, though the event also serves as a showcase for baking competitions and 4-H entries. And on the other end of the spectrum is the Chase County Fair in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas (pop. 821), where livestock and crafts are also meticulously and lovingly prepared for display, albeit on a more intimate scale as evidenced by the fact that fair concessions are typically handled by the local Methodist church.
Stay Up Late
Skip the bedtime battle while the stakes are low(er) and let the kids stay up late. Whether you make it a game night, a craft night, or a movie night — or all stay up late together to glimpse a celestial event, such as the Northern Lights making a rare appearance in Lower 48 — one key ingredient is a special snack like piled-high nachos or special cookies (the making of which can can also be one of the night’s activities).
Try Disc Golf
While perhaps not as on-trend as Pickleball, disc golf — a.k.a “frisbee golf” — is still growing in popularity as a family-friendly outdoor activity. (If you’re new to disc golf, you can get all the info you need to get started from the Professional Disc Golf Association.) While there are some 7,000 disc golf courses in the U.S., you really just need a frisbee and some open space to play. You can play a formal game — adjusting scores according to skill levels, to keep younger kids engaged and in the game — or take the scramble approach and let everyone take a shot from the best spot to make it more collaborative than competitive.
Find A Waterfall
Every state has at least one waterfall worth visiting. Granted, North Dakota has just a single registered waterfall so a visit to Mineral Springs is notable largely on account of its rarity, but it’s still a solid option for a quick hike and a summer splash. And in addition to providing cool fun, waterfalls make a great backdrop for family pictures worthy of consideration for the annual holiday greeting card.
Get Out The Sidewalk Chalk
Sidewalk chalk isn’t particularly tidy, but it doesn’t have to be on account of its temporary nature. Use it to map out a game of hop hopscotch, write encouraging messages to passers-by, lay down giant initials as a territory marker, or simply transform gruff asphalt canvas into an explosion of flowers and rainbows.
Map Out The “New Year”
For families, the night before the first day back at school is a lot like New Year’s Eve: a time of high hopes and fresh resolutions. Once the year’s under way, it’s a challenge to find the time to step back and think big about future fun. Before everyone gets bogged down in essential but ephemeral things like the first week of school lunches, set aside time to map out the coming “new year,” focusing on potential adventures, large and small, with everyone contributing their own ideas. Ideally, pull out an actual map and explore potential destinations together, from National Parks to bucket-list trips around the world.
Explore The Place You Call Home
While summer is obviously high time for far-flung travel and big trips — the kids are out of school, the open road calls, and the world’s your oyster — discovering new places to explore closer to home can sometimes be the bigger adventure. No matter where we live, there’s a neighborhood, forest preserve, museum, park, swimming hole, playground, or summer event we’ve always meant to check out. Approaching everything, no matter how familiar it may seem, with a sense of curiosity is an essential skill to pass on to kids, one that delivers lifelong rewards.
Stop And Smell the Flowers
As awe-inspiring as it is, every year without fail, to see the frozen ground give way to lush greens and fields of flowers, by August, we’re all in danger of taking all that beauty for granted. Fall may be the nation’s favorite season, but come winter, we’ll be dreaming about towering sunflowers and hydrangea blooms the size of volleyballs. Set aside a weekend day to work together in the backyard, volunteer at a local community garden, or visit the nearest botanical garden, for a last blast of summer splendor.
Plan An All-Day Picnic
Picnics don’t have to be elaborate affairs to be fun — that’s pretty much the beauty of a picnic. But at least once a summer, it’s worth it to go all out, with an amazing spread (or a plan to grill at the park) and a commitment to spending the whole day outside, lounging in the shade, playing games, and welcoming friends and family throughout the day. Arrive early, stake out the perfect spot, and let everyone know where you’ll be and what they can add to the party.
Go On An Epic Bike Ride
With more than 25,000 miles of rail-trails in the U.S., there are plenty of family-friendly bike routes (meaning: paved, mostly level, and car-free) to explore. Some are ideal for day-trip bike adventures — such as the 30-mile Centennial Trail north of Seattle or the 25-mile Cape Cod Rail Trail, which winds through the Cape’s state and national parks all the way to Provincetown. While others are perfect for more ambitious multi-day trips with older kids — super-routes like the Erie Canalway Trail and Great Allegheny Passage. If the logistics feel daunting, look for local organizations and outfitters who plan family-friendly bike-camping adventures, like 718 Cyclery in Brooklyn.
Camp On An Island
Camping anywhere is nearly always memorable (for better or worse). Sleeping under the stars in summer puts us in touch with the round-the-clock work of the natural world (long dusks, nocturnal creatures, moonlight, the crack of dawn) and pushes kids to be resourceful problem-solvers who can cope with some discomfort in pursuit of adventure. All the more so if you paddle out to your own island for a night or two. There are family-friendly island campsites in state and national parks across the country, many of which feel remote but are just a short paddle back to civilization.
High on the list of traditional summer rituals — even for those us who don’t do it very often — a day of fishing offers great things that don’t have to involve catching fish at all. For some of us, it’s just about spending time outside on the water, appreciating the natural world and connecting with others in one of the few social formats that has long pleasant silences built into it. For others, it’s about all that and the fishing (case in point, see our interview with commercial fisherman Corey Arnold). Either way, it’s an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the last glow of summer.
Fly A Kite
Watching a colorful kite hop off the ground and start climbing toward the clouds at the beach or local park, is nothing sort of miraculous. Kids can learn a lot about cause-and-effect (and managing frustration) as they work out how to maneuver a kite ever-higher on invisible currents. But conditions don’t have to be perfect — kids will also happily run back and forth for hours to keep a kite aloft for a few seconds at a time. It’s such easy summer fun, it can somehow slip off the radar. Kites are portable, affordable, and occasionally airborne summer accessories that should always be on hand.
Watch A Movie Outside
Movie theaters are pretty anti-social, and plunking down in front of the TV is usually about disconnecting. But watching a movie outside on warm summer evening — whether it’s with a few friends, dozens of neighbors or a hundred strangers — is genuinely easy communal fun, and a great excuse to both have a family picnic and stay up late. It’s also drive-in season — there are a handful of 1950s-era drive-ins in operation across the country, such as the Fairlee Drive-In Theater & Motel, in Vermont, and the Harvest Moon Drive-In, in Central Illinois. And in these last few weeks of summer, movies-in-the-parks program are still going strong from Brunswick, Maine, to Austin.
Last-Minute Road Trip
By August, we’re all a bit burned out on travel logistics, which is what makes the final weeks of summer optimal for a last-minute road trip over a long weekend. Whether it’s making an overnight trip out of a visit to a retro drive-in, getting a last-minute campsite at a state or national park, or driving to the nearest shore to jump in the waves once more, nothing feels better than a fresh destination and the freedom to go at your own pace and explore along the way.
For most of us, the end of summer signals the end of swimming outside for months to come: Beaches turn gusty and rough; lakes freeze over; outdoor pools are drained for the long winter ahead (unless you live in Iceland). This is the month to take that surfing lesson, rent that SUP, sign up for that swimming lesson — and to soak up every opportunity to be on or near the water.
Whenever Possible, Get Outside
Wherever we live — and however different the seasons may look, depending on where we live — summer is summer. For kids, it’s about freedom from the strictures and expectations of the school year, sure, but for all of us, it’s the season for slowing down, exploring new places, noticing more, and getting out in the bigger world with our kids.