7 Ways to Save a Summer Afternoon

Summer is my favorite season. I love swimming and biking and growing things in the garden—and so do my kids. But by the end of July, when the heat peaks, and the first day of school is still many weeks away, those lazy summer afternoons can start to feel really, well, long. And I don’t mean long in that carefree endless-summer way we loved as kids – more, in the, “How is it only 2 PM?” way we know as parents. I’m a big fan of letting kids make their own fun, but when the mid-summer lag kicks in, sometimes kids and parents alike need a little inspiration.

My friend Leah Gold is the queen of creative, low-cost, minimal-planning activities to do with children. A mother, artist, and art educator living in Toronto, she is the former co-director of Bellwoods Playschool, an innovative after-school program that pairs professional artists with groups of young children for creative play and urban explorations. Gold shared some of her tried-and-true ways to spend an afternoon with kids in the city.


A mini-camping trip is Leah’s favorite version of her go-to trick of planning “a pretend, scaled-down version of a bigger adventure.” To pull this off, pack a small tent (or even a light blanket thrown over a branch does the trick if this is with younger kids), a picnic lunch, any easy-to-carry camping gear you have on hand (think small lanterns, bug nets, lightweight camp stools), and head to a park with a secluded or wooded area.


The flipside of the mini-adventure is making a small-scale activity really big. Gold, who produces large-scale drawings in her own art practice, likes to tape a giant piece of paper to the wall, or even uses a large piece of scrap wood or old bed sheets, for kids to paint on. If indoor paint messes give you heart palpitations, take it outside with sidewalk chalk, or let kids bring a watercolor set to a nearby park or garden to paint flowers and landscapes like little French Impressionists.


Gold has a knack for turning even the simplest activities into a fun excursion. “You can make any outing an adventure by being more intentional about it,” she says. If you have an errand to run with the kids, get them involved with the planning at home. Instead of jamming everyone’s essentials into your bag in a mad rush, have the kids pack and carry their own adventure bags with a notebook, pencil, ziplock bag for collecting things, magnifying glass, binoculars, and anything else they deem essential. Plan out your walking, driving, or public transit route together using maps. And build in lots of time along the way to stop and take notes and photos, and gather small items.


Whether you have a big backyard or a tiny fire escape, try thinking creatively about how to use it. A patch of grass? Gold likes lawn games, such as bocce or croquet. Just a window box for green space? Bubbles are a cheap, crowd-pleaser and fun to blow from balconies. In my own tiny Toronto backyard, I set-up what my friend calls “the preschool mini-resort”—basically just filling up the kiddie pool, hauling out all the outdoor toys, and setting the hose to “mist.” My daughter recently added a spa element with her toenail-painting station in the shade.


If your home has some foot traffic out front, a lemonade stand, bake sale, or craft sale is guaranteed to fill an afternoon. Teach your kids how to make lemonade from scratch or a favorite recipe, and have them practice their counting and sorting skills with their growing pile of change. Get creative with signmaking and decorating your table and chairs. Too hot outside? Dream up a business plan together. “I once bought a ‘magic rock’ from a kid on my block for 50 cents,” says Gold. “He was a good salesman!”


Summer is prime time for free events like block parties, cultural festivals, and free theater in the park. But Gold recommends only staying a short while at each new, unfamiliar setting. “When I’m taking kids on a bigger field trip, I always build in some time for rest, play, and familiarity,” she explains. That might mean spending an hour at a street festival, and then the next hour having a snack and blowing off steam at a nearby playground. This is, for me, the key to keeping both kids and parents happy all summer long. Because now is the time to kick back, relax, and rest up.