Summer is the season that heralds barbecues and all-day swimming, but many Catholic families aren’t entirely sure how to encourage old-fashioned family bonding time without the intrusion of technological devices. While many parents might dread summertime – when kids are home all day, every day for a couple of months – I actually look forward to it. It’s a time of holy leisure when my girls and I can get up in the morning at our own pace and enter into our day with a sense of peace and perspective.
To temper the possibility of boredom with engaging activities that are both family- and faith-friendly, I like to go back to nature. Now, more than ever before, it’s necessary for us to reconnect with creation, not as a bizarre attempt to “commune with the universe,” but rather as an intentional act of contemplating the beauty, wonder, and simple riches God created for us to use and enjoy. Here are ten suggestions for you and your family to enter into those sweltering summer months with purpose.
Reconnect with nature
One of my favorite aspects of summer is the plethora of opportunities to spend time outdoors. When I was a child, my parents planned elaborate vacations every summer to some destination that revolved around a particular time in history or culture. While these were certainly memorable, some of my fondest memories occurred in conversation hanging around a bonfire in the backyard on a lazy summer’s eve or perhaps an impromptu picnic at our local state park.
The point is, you don’t have to spend countless hours or thousands of dollars to create lasting impressions of authentic connection for your children or spouse. God provided the landscape for us to connect with Him and with each other. All we have to do is create the moments.
- Visit a state park
State parks are those family hot spots that some of us overlook as affordable locations to create family memories. You can start with the parks in your state, or venture on a road trip to discover new ones. They are usually clean and provide ample space to experience the holy leisure that summer provides.
Though the list is endless on what you can do at state parks, here are some of my favorites:
- Camping:If you have a camper, try a new state park this year for your adventure into nature. If you are more of an outdoorsy type, try tent camping.
- Swimming: Most parks have beaches that your family can enjoy together, which is a perfect way to spend a sweltering sunny day.
- Canoeing: If your park has a beach, it will probably also offer canoe or paddle boat rental. Take one out on the water with your family. This is an ideal way to see how your family operates as a team and use the time you share for interesting and possibly hilarious conversation.
- Nature hike: My dad always took my brother and me on nature hikes when we visited state parks. This was the part of our outdoor adventure that I most looked forward to. After reviewing the maps of different trails, my dad would determine if this was a “quiet” walk or one where he could inform us about the different species of plant and tree life or even point out animals. The “quiet” walks occurred when a deer or moose spotting was more probable, and he didn’t want our talking to scare them away.Hiking a nature trail offers multiple benefits, including exercise, time for contemplating God’s creation, and vitamin D from the sunshine.
- Nature center: Another sure hit with young children is the nature center, which is like a mini-museum where you can learn about what kinds of insects, animals, trees, and birds are indigenous to the park where you’re staying. Some even have kid-friendly activities or a park ranger who is willing to take you on a guided tour.
- Go stargazing
Even if you don’t own a telescope, taking a drive into the country on a clear summer’s night to watch the stars has a definite celestial feel to it. As a child, I would look for the Big and Little Dipper constellations, but I also marveled at the bright lights of distant planets and the twinkle of the occasional shooting star. Pondering the immensity of the cosmos in relation to our miniscule presence on earth is another gateway into conversation about God’s vastness and our gratitude for the beauty of the night sky.
- Have a picnic
You can do this anywhere, but my girls especially love to pack a picnic lunch and head to our neighborhood playground. Because it’s deemed out of the ordinary for small kids, something we might find slightly boring is quite thrilling to them. That’s why I love this as a summer activity: it saves me money on food if we are at the zoo, and it’s simple enough to throw together on a whim. What a great way to get the kids outside, too.
- Go birdwatching
My childhood trips to zoos, museums, and state parks triggered an interest in ornithology. When I approached middle school, my parents gave me a pair of binoculars and a bird identification book, which I used whenever I was outdoors. It’s fun and educational to look up colorful or exotic birds and identify them by their songs, which can be listened to online.
- Visit the zoo
Who doesn’t like the zoo? Even in my thirties, I still get excited about taking our girls to the zoo. Even if you aren’t an animal lover, zoos usually have indoor museums with activities and crafts, but the animal shows and rides will be enough to keep your kids occupied for an entire day. While you plan your visit, pack a picnic lunch, too.
- Make a campfire
You don’t have to be camping in order to build a campfire. Some people have fancy fire pits, but you can build your own and gather fallen branches from your yard. After a busy day, why not build a cozy fire by twilight and invite the kids outside to roast hot dogs and marshmallows? My girls always delight in this, especially if it’s a spontaneous (and rare) treat.
Reconnect with your faith
- Visit a shrine
I recently discovered a little hideaway in St. John, Indiana, which is fairly close to where I live. It is the home of the Shrine of Christ’s Passion, where life-sized images of Jesus and His disciples are laid out on the property in stone. After I heard about this shrine, I realized that there are many accessible places all over the country that we can visit for a day of prayer and pilgrimage. Take your family on a little road trip to discover what holy places are near you, and you may be pleasantly surprised at how your children will be spiritually touched by the experience.
- Build a Mary garden
Prayer gardens allow a person time in solitude to contemplate, pray, and meditate by reflecting on the sacred space that includes specific flowers, statues, or grottos. Mary gardens include flowers named after Our Lady, such as roses, lilies, marigolds, Our Lady’s Tears, among other countless varieties. If you have the space in your yard, carve out some time in the summer to make this a family endeavor of transforming a particular space into one that is dedicated to Mary. You can add special touches, like benches and statues. Once it’s complete, pray a family rosary together and encourage everyone to spend time as they wish to pray outside.
- Make a time capsule
Everyone likes the idea of burying treasure and opening it up years later. Collect photos, holy cards, favorite prayers or Bible verses, fond memories, and other trinkets or memorabilia to include in your time capsule.
- Create a scavenger hunt
Scavenger hunts are always a hit for the young and old alike, so why not make yours specific to learning about the Faith? There are some fantastic ideas online on how to make this typical activity an opportunity for you and your kids to grow in knowledge of the Faith.
Most Catholic scavenger hunts aren’t designed for moving outdoors, but you can creatively ponder ways to get your family moving on a treasure hunt for medals of saints, holy cards, or little figurines you have buried or hidden outside that correspond with questions you come up with.
While I may have included the fun aspects of summer, I am no stranger to the reality of sunburns, sand fleas, ticks, mosquitos, snakes, and spiders. Before you plan your family activities, remember the sunscreen, bug spray, and food screens to protect yourself and your children. The key is to use the summer months as an opportunity to grow closer to your loved ones and deepen your faith. By the time your kids return to school, they will be grateful for the screen-free quality time you spent with them.