My husband and I usually work every summer. We are both educators who typically work on a year round contract. Then the pandemic hit... and missing out on summers off with our 2 small kids stopped feeling worth it; not to mention the high cost of summer childcare and camps. So this summer we made the decision to reclaim some of our freedom, for as little money as possible, since our summer of job freedom can come at a high price. So the mission-- 1. Explore the city of Houston. We live in the 3rd largest city in the U.S., but whether you live in a big city or are from Small Town, USA, most of what we did with our "FREE" summer is probably a short drive a way. 2. We wanted to make sure that the our family had something planned almost every day. I have a not-so-secret love for calendars, so as soon as my husband said he wanted to make sure that we maximized everyday, out came the calendars. You don't have to go and buy a fancy planner. I used templates from Canva.com (there are several free options to choose from), or just use your Google Calendar, that way you can share your schedule with anyone who is interested in joining you. 3.We wanted to make sure our kids spend plenty of time in the great outdoors to limit screen time. Plus, my mental health centers around me running most morning. Sure we live in Texas, and this has been a summer of record breaking heat for most places, but we were very strategic about not only what we did, but WHEN we did it. Walks and parks, morning and evening activities, while anything indoors we planned for when the sun was at its most ruthless hours. And finally 4. We wanted to our activity help our 5 year old with reading and literacy. Poor kid, he has a mom who works in literacy, so we are constantly looking for ways to engage him with reading and finding connections between his experiences and his books. We didn't go over the top with this, but when we could squeeze a book into our outing, we did. Check out these suggestions of activities from our summer of Freedom.
1. Nights at the Museums!: Thursday was the free museum day in Houston. Check the websites of museums in your areas to see if they offer any free admission days during summer.
Children's Museum: Houston has a great children's museum. During summer they have free admission one night a week (Thursday night from 5:00pm- 7:30pm)). All you have to do is go on their website and reserve tickets (reservations open the Monday of the week you want to go). Having to get tickets was helpful for not dealing with big crowds, but you had to get on reserving your spot fast!
Museum of Health and Science: This is a much smaller museum in Houston, but we kids still enjoy checking out the larger-than-life models of hearts and intestines. They also usually have a really interesting exhibit about random topics. We really enjoyed learning more about dyslexia and how it works for some people. This visit is usually short, but definitely worth the trip. The museum was free to the public on Thursday afternoons.
Museum of Fine Arts: An art museum with 2 littles under age 6 seemed like a definite "no-no", but surprisingly, it was really interesting to see how artwork expanded my kids' imagination and what they consider for their own lives. My son was looking at a Picasso painting, and I was trying to explain why so many people (myself included) are fascinated by his work. Right when I figured he would understand when he got older, he said " Picasso paints "-ish" things." It was a proud parent moment. He completely connected to Picasso and the Pete Reynolds book, Ish. He loved the idea, that his work doesn't have to be perfect, some people (him and Pablo Picasso) could be great at -ish. The kids really enjoyed exploring the treasures of other cultures, especially the treasures of the Arabic world (my kids is learning Arabic as a second language), and the art museum always had hands-on free crafts for kids that we connected to one of the exhibits. My most dreaded outing turned into one of my favorites of the summer.
2. Performances and Picnics at the Park!
Parks can be the obvious choice for free fun in the summer, but that doesn't mean they're the boring choice. Most cities have different parks with lots of free events planned for summer ranging from kid fun to some adult socializing time.
Miller Outdoor Theater: We watched a Black History performance at the park. This was a great free performance. The highlight of this outing was is Miller Outdoor Theater is at Herman Park. So the performance are made more fun by the picnic afterwards and feeding the ducks in the park.
Levy Park: is the ultimate park for entertainment in Houston. Every Tuesday we checked out story time in the park, and then followed that up with running around in the splash pad. It's a contained park, so no need to be a hovering parent. The park has everything from foosball and ping pong tables, to mini golf and Family nights with live music and bubbles! Finding this park added a lot to our calendar over the summer.
3. The Public Library!
This is a HUGE untapped resource. I don't care where you live, you probably have a public library available. The Houston Public Library has a lot of locations, but we found most of what we were looking for at the downtown location. One day a week they offered craft hour, they had two events with guest authors, not to mention my kids really like sitting in the reading area and looking through books to check out. Your library is a hidden gem, but what a way to engage you kid with reading and to make some new friends along the way. All year long they have a calendar of events, but during the summer there is something you can get into almost everyday of the week!
4. The Houston Zoo!
Most parents will understand this. When my kids' birthdays come around or people ask me about Christmas gifts, I always say we appreciate experiences as much as we do toys, so during the year we usually have been gifted a membership to the Houston Zoo or the one of the museums in the city. The membership to the zoo provides us year-round entertainment. Most people don't know that the zoo is mostly covered or has places to shelter from the weather, so the best time for us to head to the zoo is when it is raining outside. During summertime the rain makes being outside tolerable, you avoid the crowds, and most of the animals enjoy the rain so you get your best chance to see animals out and about cooling off in the rain. Put on your rain jacket and head out because it's definitely worth it.
5. Working the Community Gardens!
This is definitely a morning or evening event. Houston is broken into different wards, and each ward comes with its own personality and pride. We live in 3rd Ward (you know, Beyoncé), and a part of the things I love about this community is there are several community gardens in walking distance. These beautiful community gardens provide a quite patch of beauty in the middle of the big city. They are always looking for volunteers to help keep the gardens beautiful and this is where my kiddos get to know members of our community and learn a lot about their stories. One thing about a community garden is every person who comes brings there own unique history. We learned about one neighbor who was trying to grow cream peas because they reminded him of his childhood and the gardens in Brooklyn, NY. Another member of this community imparted wisdom from the Caribbean to my children, so they would understand how things grow in a different part of the world. Once the sun gets to high in the sky, we all take cover, but we feel satisfied with this adventure.
6. Beach Day and Other Water Fun!
I am not a beach person, but we live so close to Galveston, I let my husband and my kids drag me to the beach for the day. I pull out my book and read under our beach tent, but they spend hours in the water and building sandcastles. My in-laws usually come to join us and we load up the cooler and enjoy a day in the sun with a cool coastal breeze. I may not love the beach, but I do love watching my family pick up shells and discover everything from hermit crabs to jelly fish. Beach days can be lake days or pools days. With the weather being as hot as it was this summer, I was definitely advise you find some water!
7. Backyard Movie Night!
A white sheet, an inflatable screen and a projector makes for a good movie night out on the lawn. I popped popcorn and had snacks for my kids and my niece and nephew and pulled up blankets to lawn chairs to watch a new movie that came out on Netflix. It seemed like a small idea, but the kiddos enjoyed feeling like they were at their own personal drive-in movie right in our backyard.
8. Tour of the Blue Bell Ice Cream Factory!
"Best day EVER"-- Direct quote from my kid, even though he said the same thing earlier that week with samples at Central Market. If you live in Texas, you are close to the Blue Bell Ice Cream Factory. While there, there are several photo opportunities at the factory, and you can also read about the history of the factory. My kids' favorite thing was watching the ice cream being made. One of the the workers said that up to 17 flavors of ice cream are being made at one time. The tour is fun and free, but if you want a scoop of ice cream (which I suggest you get AT LEAST 1 scoop) it's just a $1/per scoop. The scoops were huge and we even thought ahead and brought a small cooler so we could take a little ice cream home. You may not be lucky enough to have "the best ice cream in the country" close enough to you, but check out what factories are nearby that you can tour. We did our tour around 11 o'clock, so by the time we finished it was time to have lunch. We found a playground nearby (completely shaded with trees) and ate our packed lunch before heading home. Best.Day. This.Summer!
There is probably so much more that we could find, but honestly, these 8 events kept us really busy over the summer. Next summer plans? Maybe check out the free events in different parts of the country so my kids can see some of the beauty of the U.S. Another goal? See what there is to explore in other countries. This summer opened up so many possibilities. Who the heck knows what's next!