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When did summer turn into a season of planning, packing, stressing, and spending? Sure, it can be great to take a big family vacation, but don't forget how much kids love the little things -- and how much there is to do right outside your own back door. A cozy campfire or a cool treat is all you need to have a blast. So this summer, go (really) local and enjoy the simple pleasures of your backyard.
Set the stage.
Make your yard feel more inviting: Hang strands of festive holiday lights, get a hammock for lounging, or add a small decorative fountain for soothing sound effects. You can also try arranging the space into a series of "rooms." Make zones for eating, active play, and a tucked-away retreat just for you.
No backyard pool? Put on your suits and improvise with a cheap kiddie pool or let loose under the sprinkler. Pass out squirt guns or water balloons. For a more relaxing treat, fill a spray bottle with water and refresh yourself with a chilly mist.
Fire it up.
Pass the evenings chatting and watching the fire flicker. You can buy an outdoor fireplace or chimney at most large discount stores. (Never build a fire directly on the ground without checking local regulations.) Roast hot dogs and marshmallows, and don't forget to tell ghost stories and sing camp songs.
Head out on a photo safari.
Grab your camera and explore the natural wonders of your yard. Add butterfly bushes or a hummingbird feeder to entice subjects. Or create a simple wildlife habitat by installing a small pond or a birdbath and growing native plants. Look for details from the National Wildlife Federation at nwf.org/gardenforwildlife.
Turn your backyard into a cineplex and screen the latest blockbuster or a classic flick. Borrow or rent a projector and show your movie on a tripod screen or outdoor wall. Invite everyone to spread out on lawn chairs and blankets, then serve Popsicles and popcorn all around.
After dark go outside with some blankets and set up your own DIY planetarium (avoid house and street lights for the best view). Learn the locations of a few constellations beforehand and try to find them on a clear night. (Check out skymaps.com for printable charts.) And be sure to keep an eye out for shooting stars.
"The kids spend a lot of time on our trampoline -- they'll jump for a while and then just sit and chat with their friends. Sometimes our son brings out his acoustic guitar and they sing."
-- Cindy Peterson, Seattle, Washington
"Our outdoor Ping-Pong table is the perfect place to play, joke, and talk. It's easy fun."
-- Ellen Van Bergen, Potomac, Maryland
"We love our screened-in pool. It's great to sit outside and enjoy the breeze (and shade) without worrying about bug bites."
-- Carole Sincic, Orlando, Florida
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.