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The UK summer is here!

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The UK summer is here!

Well, a kind of summer. The kind of summer, in fact, that requires some significant creativity on the part of the busy parent trying to keep their families happy and healthy in the variable weather without breaking the bank.

Here are some ideas that I hope will inspire you. Each strand offers two ways into the play. One way is an 'invitation to play'. In case you haven't come across these before, you prepare a tray of stimulating and intriguing items for the child, and leave it for them to use or not use as they see wish. They can act as a wonderful springboard for your child's own ideas. The other way into the play is a list of other ideas that would require parental guidance. Most of the activities are aimed at children between the ages of 5 and 14 (yes, 14 year olds might like to play too!), but I've tried to include an idea or two for the smallest people in there as well.

Some of these ideas are suitable for outdoor play, and some for indoor, and some for both.

Invitation to play:
Place a large sheet (or two if you can spare them), a hula hoop and/or piece of rope and a photo of a tent on a tray. (If you're feeling extra lovely, you could also hint that a safe fire could be lit, and fruit kebabs or marshmallows toasted on it once the home-made tent is up!)

Other activities:
- Create an ice sensory bin (suitable for very small people). Colour some ice blocks with food colouring, or place items inside before you freeze. For older children you could turn it into an arctic exploration...
- Plan a day at the park doing nature exploration. You only need to take household goods with you to make an exciting nature exploration kit! A fine sieve, two plastic boxes, a jam jar or two (wide neck is best), a watering can, a home-made kite, a floating item (tie string to it so that it doesn't float away downstream), and a picnic. You might want to take a camera to photograph any interesting wildlife. And probably a change of clothes and wellies!
- Place some paper clips in a jar. Use magnetic objects around the house to play. Try other objects in the jar.
- Make a volcano! Put a bit of food colouring in a plastic cup. Cover with baking soda. Squirt some vinegar over the top. Stand back!
- If you have any unused door knobs around the house, you could paint them to look like toadstools. This can lead to some interesting play for small children as they sort them by size, colour and number of spots.

There are plenty of free science and exploring games to be found online if you get really stuck. Alicia Bayer has linked to some here. The Natural History Museum site is just wonderful, as is the Science Museum. If you live near a city you may find that there are local museums that offer interesting explorations days or experiences for your children. For example, if you ask very nicely, our local New Walk Museum will let children handle all sorts of fascinating fossils.

I think some of the best imaginative activities happen when we turn everyday objects into remarkable things. A box can become a ship, a castle, a mountain. A tree becomes a swing, a hiding place, a giant. Here are some ideas for supporting the already rich imaginative world your child lives in.

Invitation to play: Place a range of dressing up clothes on the tray. The old ideas are the best!

Other activities:
- Paint a pebble. Leave it hidden around the house and/or garden. Tell your child that it is a transformed elf. Can the child find a way of breaking the spell? You can provide clues or not, depending on the age and personality of your child. (If you want to give the child a real elf once the spell is broken you can make one cheaply using an old-fashioned clothes pin and a hanky or scrap of fabric for wings/clothes).
- Use cushions to turn a room in your house into a magical train ride (you can save old tickets for use). Where will you go? What will you do? Who will you meet?
- Make a set of story stones together. Pain characters, items, facial expressions, or whatever else you like onto some pebbles, and tell stories with them.
- Set up a pretend shop.
- Have a toy birthday party.

We're very fond of using natural or found objects to make stuff. One of my favourite activities as a child was making fairy, elf or goblin gardens in little nooks and crannies in our garden or the park. Google image 'fairy garden' and you'll get many ideas, but in my experience if you make a range of materials available to the child then they'll just go ahead on their own. Some examples: interesting shaped pieces of wood, a piece of wood with a door painted on it to place against a nearby tree, little bits of flowers, leaves and berries, twigs, rubber bands for putting pieces together into furniture. I love this site for tiny little foods.

Invitation to play:
Place a mirror, a beautiful natural item, a plant, paper and coloured pencils on a tray.

Other activities:
- Make paintbrushes from pine needles, animal hair, human hair or any other item that the child finds inspirational! Tie together with tape. Enjoy some messy painting.
- Make a bug from natural materials and play doh. Make a playdoh head and body. Give it some twig legs and antennae, and leaves for wings. All sorts of other materials can be used, e.g. birds feathers, acorns or acorn cups.
- Use scraps of fabric and clear glue over a balloon to make a bowl.

When I was a primary school teacher, about a thousand years ago it seems, we always enjoyed doing activities associated with the Silk Road. The spices, markets, deserts, oasis, caravans, languages and fabrics of the famous trade route that connected the west to the east are so evocative.

Invitation to play:
Imagine finishing your breakfast to find a wonderful tray awaiting you, with an atlas (or computer open at Google Earth), the words 'Silk Road', a tray of spices, and a blank canvas with paints or food colouring water on it? Where would you go?

Other activities:
- make a Silk Road in your house using boxes and sheets to create mountains, pretend to be camels travelling through, and sell your wares at a market at the end. You could make items to trade out of playdoh, or use natural items found outdoors.
- Dye some fabric using natural dyes found in your kitchen cupboards and fridge.
- Look at images of Silk Road fabrics online. Find household items that you could use to create prints inspired by those images (I find Lego or Duplo blocks brilliant for printing). Create some Silk Road fabric using paint or natural dyes.
- Listen to some Silk Road music online and create a piece of music using a kitchen orchestra (pots and pans and such-like).
- Paint or print with spices (suitable for very little people).
- Make spiced apples by removing the core, placing a knob of butter, some honey and some spices in the centre (we like cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon) and cook in the microwave or bake in the oven until soft.

There are also loads of resources to be found online that are a great stimulus for new ideas and excitement. Penn Museum has an excellent downloadable sheet of activities and recipes inspired by the Silk Route, as well as a number of exciting images. If you wanted to share the costs with some other families you could buy some silk worms from the Silkworm Store and watch them grow, create and enter cocoons and emerge as moths. The Silk Road Project has some useful educational resources, videos and sound clips. And of course Google Earth is an amazing resource. See if you can track the Silk Road online, looking at landscapes and images as you go.

Give Back
In our house we all volunteer in some way or other. We take our one year old with us when we do our volunteering (where appropriate of course) so that she sees us model that behaviour. It isn't just because it gives us something to do - it is about getting to know and be with a wider range of people, being part of a healthy, happy society and physical environment, leadership, teamwork and tolerance.

Invitation to play:
Get free brochures from a range of charities (many charity shops stock them, but you can download quite a few from sites such as Oxfam). Contrast these with a few family photos showing what a warm, happy home you and your children have together. See what happens...

Other activities:
If your child is older, you might want to link their volunteering with their interests. For example, if they enjoy sport, perhaps they could train for a charity event. You might also want to discuss with them how much time they would like to commit - perhaps one day clearing up a wooded area would be enough, or perhaps they'd like to be part of a summer-long environmental project. But the possibilities are limited only by the need to keep them safe, so you could consider:
- peer mediation with a children's charity
- Organising a garage or bake sale, with the proceeds going to charity.
- Reading stories to elderly people or small children.
- Find out if your local Council has a youth representative group.
- Research an article and write it up for your local newspaper.

Free the Children is a Canadian organisation that has lots of other ideas on their website. You might want to visit the site with your child and develop ideas together.

I hope you've found some ideas here. Happy summer play days!

Di Levine is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. She also sells Barefoot Books in Leicester, where she lives with her husband and gorgeous daughter. Di's Barefoot Books Leicester Facebook page features a Book of the Week with many ideas for enjoying reading at home.

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