Family life

6 ways to jazz up a family vacation

Sometimes, it’s easy to keep the kids entertained.. Other times, you need to bring in reinforcements while on family vacation.

1Tracy

The kids get into a game of jumbo Jenga. Photo: Tracy Chappell

We’ve just returned from our annual cottage utopia, where we go with two other families for one week each summer. I literally count down the days to this holiday and have such an incredible time—it’s two cottages on the same property, backing right onto a shallow beach. This was our fifth summer, and it’s hard to believe we’ve been going up there since Avery was just a year old. Back then, there were diapers and naps and feeding schedules to contend with, and I remember us sitting around (once we finally, finally got all the kids to sleep) imagining how amazing this trip would be once our kids could entertain themselves while we sat in our beach chairs, chatting, reading, and smiling and waving when they hollered out to us to check out their antics.

That was this year. And it was as sweet as we dreamed. Between our three families we have six kids—three boys, three girls—with ages ranging from five to 11, and what really makes our holiday work so well is how we all share the load in both work and play. We divide up meals and watch each other’s kids and we also plan ahead to add a little extra fun to the week.

Don’t get me wrong—we’re all about the kids having free time to enjoy the great outdoors and entertain themselves, but it’s also good to have some ideas in your back pocket to fill in the gaps.

Backyard Jenga: I found this idea on a website a few weeks before we went up to the cottage and jokingly sent it to my friend to ask her husband to make it. I still can’t believe he made it! We had a few nights too windy for campfires, so this humongous Jenga was so much fun. Another great addition from their family this year were two kid-sized kayaks, which got tons of use.

Crafts: Usually we have an afternoon where we take a break from the beach and get out paints and craft supplies on the patio tables and get creative—painting canvases, building boats, making picture frames with stones and sand. All the kids get into it, and it gives them a memento to take home.

Read more: Crafts: 7 fun ideas for painting outside>

Rainy-day activities: This was the first year we had not-so-great weather on our cottage week. A couple of days brought high winds and rain, which put a damper on our usual hang-at-the-beach daily agenda. But isn’t it great how kids can make their own fun? We spent some time in town—mini golfing, go-karting, shopping—but then when the sun broke through, the kids decided to set up a lemonade stand. It was so cool. They made the lemonade, made signs, and even managed to make a few bucks from people driving or walking by. So don’t be afraid—even on a crappy weather day—to leave the kids to their own devices.

Read more: 13 fun and easy rainy day crafts>

Minute-to-win-it: For the first time this year, we set up some easy, hilarious games for the kids on evening. They had to use a straw to suck up mini marshmallows and get them in a cup; they put a stocking on their head with a tennis ball in the toe to knock over pop cans; they blew candies across the table with a straw; put an Oreo on their forehead and try to get it into their mouths without using their hands. So much fun!

Scavenger hunt: We started a tradition of pairing up the kids into three teams and setting them loose with a list of items to collect on our last evening at the cottage. They have a blast collecting things like feathers, socks, a Jack of Hearts, and doing activities like puzzles and skipping. The prizes are minimal, but we love watching them band together to strategize and race up and down the beach and in and out of the cottages to cross the items off their list.

Let them watch TV: I know it seems like an odd thing to add to this list, but sometimes, it’s fine to let kids chill out in front of the tube. I used to get anxious about it—after all, we’re at the beach!—but I’ve realized that some kids just need that quiet time to tune out and it doesn’t have to be a negative. It can actually work to everyone’s benefit. The kids got up at the crack of dawn and went to bed late and had tons of outdoor time for seven days and, this year, they watched more TV than usual. No big deal.

And in 356 days, we get to do it all again. Can’t wait!

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her@T_Chappell.