10 Wonder-filled Summer Activities for Kids

firefliesby Diane Schwartz, Get Kids Outside

Summertime flies by so fast. Before you know it, back-to-school ads will start.

Enjoy the summer by giving your kids wonder-filled activities that will delight and engage them.

1. Catch a firefly or two or three in a jar: No insect says summer like the firefly. These gentle insects light up the night and the imaginations of kids. Male and female fireflies blink
on and off as a way of attracting each other for mating. Different species have different blinking patterns. To see this, capture some fireflies in a jar and count the gap between flashes and look for patterns. Gently release them and try with another set of fireflies. If they have different flash patterns, then it’s a different species.


Cicada exoskeleton and fully morphed cicada.

2. Catch a cicada larvae and watch it morph overnight into a gorgeous flying machine. Cicadas usually start appearing in late July and early August. Their high-pitched singing ushers in the dog days of summer. Look for cicada larvae at the base of trees in the early evening. Gently place the larvae in a well-ventilated container with a few sticks or bark. In the morning, you will have a fully morphed cicada. Notice the exoskeleton left by the molting insect. Pretty cool. Observe this beautiful insect and then let it go. Later, listen for and try to find one sitting in a tree. They are very loud so you may have to hold your ears. They are the only insect capable of making such loud noises.

3. Make homemade ice cream in a bag. There is nothing better than eating something that you make from scratch. All it takes is ice, sugar, heavy cream, vanilla, rock salt and your favorite fruit or candy. The best part is you don’t have to crank and the kids can make a mess outside and toss the baggies. I like the recipe at www.spoonful.com. For the scientific approach go to www.scientificamerican.com. I love it when kids learn while they’re having fun.

4. Make a backyard water park with sprinklers, plastic tarps and buckets. Set up a sprinkler or two to make a water park in your backyard. A plastic tarp can make a great slip and slide and water balloons are always a hit. Get the entire neighborhood together to make this simple pleasure a real extravaganza.

5. Play outside at night. Too many kids do not get to experience the joy of playing outside at night. How else are you going to catch those fireflies? Be sure to let your kids experience the joy of summer at night. Have a campfire or cookout, take an evening stroll, catch fireflies, or play hide-and-seek. The summer lasts longer when you play outside at night.

6. Have a campfire. Whether in your backyard or at a campground, having a campfire is essential. Campfires are relaxing and cozy. Your kids will remember the stories that are shared around a campfire for a lifetime and they’ll really remember the food. Everything tasted better when it’s cooked on a fire outside.

images-47. Eat a s’more: A s’more is the quintessential campfire treat. Just cook a marshmallow or two over a fire and sandwich them between two graham crackers and a piece of chocolate for a delicious campfire snack. Pudgy Pies are another favorite. To make one you need giant pie irons. We called them Tonka Toasters growing up and you can buy them at most outdoor stores. A Pudgy Pie is essentially a grilled cheese sandwich, only it’s cooked between the pie irons. Fillings vary. Pie filling was our favorite, just don’t put too much in the middle or the bread will break. You may burn one or two before getting it right, but that’s part of the fun.

8. Go swimming in an old-fashioned swimming hole where you can use inner tubes and floaties. Bring along the noodles, inner tubes and floaties for old-fashioned fun at the beach. Devil’s Lake is a great place to swim because the water is clean and you can enjoy inner tubes. You can also chase minnows and find interesting rocks on the beach. While there is no life-guard on duty at many of these parks, the water is shallow enough so that you don’t have to worry too much. Plus, you can always swim with your kids. They will love you for it.

images9. Go to a Fair:  Every county in Wisconsin, and most states, holds a fair between July and September every year. The year ends with a huge state fair. You can see animals, go on rides, play games or just walk around. I go just to see that donut machine that automatically drops the dough into a river of hot oil and flips them when they reach golden-brown perfection. It’s an engineering marvel and makes my day. True, this event is not free and food alone can rack up the costs. However, if you save up, you can manage a visit to the fair once a year. See http://www.wisconline.com for a list of all the Fairs in Wisconsin.

10. Look for shooting stars: City folks will have to find a spot outside the city lights for this one, or just find a spot shielded from big lights. Lay down a blanket and stare up into the night sky. Imagine the galaxies and planets and the vastness of the universe. Tell stories and look for constellations like the big dipper. If you don’t know the constellations, then invent your own. But most of all just marvel at the beauty of the night sky and before you know it you’ll be saying, “Look, there’s a shooting star. Did you see it?”

Don’t forget to make a wish and relish your time with your kids this summer.

What summer activities are on your top 10 list?  

Diane Schwartz is the founder of Get Kids Outside. She is passionate about getting kids outdoors and has taught more than 300 kids and their families the joys of biking, hiking and skiing. She is especially interested in increasing racial diversity in our parks and trails. In addition, she founded the Madison Area Women’s Outdoor Group in 2012. The group has over 300 members and has completed 128 outings. 


Where are we going? Learning to read a map


Where are we going?

Hiking is a great way to teach map reading skills. In the photo, I am showing a student the map at Cherokee Marsh. Map reading teaches spatial awareness and boosts confidence. Kids always ask, “How far have we hiked? Have we hike a mile yet?” Showing them a map and then hiking the trail is the best way to learn this skill.

Tips on Fishing with Kids: Plus 6 Midwest Fishing Hotspots

images-1By Joe Laing, guest author

Looking to reel the kids out of the house? Fishing is a great way to get them away from the computer and bond with them in the great outdoors. The Midwest is full of incredible spots for your family to cast their lines. Here are some tips and places to check out that will get your children hooked in no time.

1) Keep your hooks sharp
A dull hook can mean a dull day on the water. Nothing will make your kids enjoy fishing more than experiencing the thrill of the catch, and nothing will turn them away from it faster than the repeated frustration of losing fish after fish. You can test to see if your hook is sharp enough by dragging it across your fingernail. If it doesn’t scratch it, you need to sharpen or replace your hook. Make sure your children are careful handling the hooks and don’t catch their finger instead of a fish. Always have a first aid kit, just in case.

2) Be sure about your lure
You have five different types of lures to choose from: spinnerbaits, crankbaits, plastics, topwaters and jigs. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits are good if you’re going to be moving around a lot or if the bottom is rocky. Topwaters are best for shallow water. For jigs and plastics, you move the rod tip to retrieve the bait instead of reeling in like all other lures.

3) Know where to look
If you’re fishing in a river or lake, find where the water turns from shallow to deep as well as mossy areas. Fish tend to gather in these areas to look for food. Make sure the kids don’t splash around too much. You don’t want to scare away your potential catches!

Places to fish

Beautiful Lake Mendota offers great urban fishing.

Beautiful Lake Mendota offers great urban fishing.

Lake Mendota- Wisconsin
Of the four lakes near Madison, this is the largest. Almost 10,000 acres of water reach depths of up to 83 feet, which is pretty deep by Wisconsin lake standards. It’s one of the best places in Wisconsin to catch walleye fish, since the Department of Natural Resources has been heavily stocking the species. There is a minimum size of 18 inches and a daily catch limit of three fish. Other fish that are abundant here include smallmouth bass and northern pike.

Saint Germain Lake- Wisconsin
This 1,617-square acre lake in Vilas County is full of largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, muskellunge, northern pike, and walleye. You’ll most likely be catching a lot of muskies, and big ones at that — Saint German Lake is known for its trophy-class muskies. The Bayview Resort is a great place to stay nearby to keep the kids entertained, with a game room, boats, canoes and a swim raft.

Lake Jacksonville-Illinois
There’s no better place in Illinois to fish for bass than Lake Jacksonville. The nearly 500-acre lake in Morgan County has garnered attention from the likes of Field and Stream magazine and it doesn’t take long to figure out why — it’s not uncommon to hook 15-inch bass (and larger). Keep in mind, there is a three-fish daily creel limit for Lake Jacksonville. If you plan to stay for a weekend or a few days, there is excellent camping nearby at the Buena Vista Resort and at the Crazy Horse Campground, which includes its own stocked fishing ponds and a disc golf course.

Trout Run Creek-Minnesota
Trout Run Creek is 12 miles of fish bliss riddled with pools, pockets and, of course, trout! The large brown trout are abundant and it’s a great spot for fly fishing. An important state regulation to be aware of is that all trout from 12″-16″ must be released right away. This gorgeous location in Lanesboro is a long-time favorite and a productive place to teach children the ropes of casting a fly line. The creek runs through Whitewater State Park, which features 47 sites with full electric RV hook-ups.

Buckeye Lake in Ohio offers great fishing.

Buckeye Lake in Ohio offers great fishing.

Buckeye Lake- Ohio
3,600 acres of water that’s only about 120 miles from Cincinnati and Cleveland makes Buckeye Lake one of Ohio’s most popular fishing destinations. You’re bound to catch a healthy haul of crappie – use jigs cast around docks to catch them. The best time of day for catching crappie is high noon, so make sure you put plenty of sun block on the little ones. For campers that like all of the amenities, the 40-acre Buckeye Lake KOA campground has plenty of room to spread out and settle down for a week.

Ackerman Lake- Michigan
Being the state with the most fresh water access, Michigan is filled with great fishing. Salmon are abundant in the state and Ackerman Lake in Alger County is no exception. In the spring, however, the fish are constantly on the move because of changing water temperatures, although finding a honey hole during summer can be very productive.

When fishing with kids, remember that removing the hook can get ugly if a fish swallows the bat, so don’t do it in front of your kids if they are younger. Seeing even a bit of fish flesh removed with the hook can scare children away from the fish fry you’d been planning for dinner.

Fishing with the family can be a memorable dream vacation or daytrip for both parents and children. Do you have any suggestions for taking the kids out on the water?

Need help get getting started? 
Here are some links to Angler Education Programs in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. Not see your state? Just Google the DNR in your state.

About the Author

Joe Laing is the Marketing Director for El Monte RV, your nationwide source for RV rentals. El Monte RV also sells used motorhomes through eight different locations across the United States.

ET: The best bike movie ever

ET still inspires kids to take flight on their bikes.

“I want to ride like ET,” said Jamar, during bike club last week.

“You mean that you want to fly?” I asked.


Thank you Jamar for reminding me of the best bike movie ever.

In the movie’s most famous scene, a gang of bike-riding kids outmaneuver the cops to protect their friend ET. Kids ride like the wind through back alleys and roads and take flight from berms. All the while, Spielberg keeps the camera on the kids’ feet as they furiously pedal.

Anyone who’s ever ridden a one speed bike can relate to this scene. Flight does seem possible and Spielberg captures this feeling perfectly. The dazzling moment where Elliot flies away with ET loaded in his basket captures what all kids intuitively know–that anything is possible on a bike.

That’s exactly how I remember biking as a kid and it’s the primary reason why I started Bike for Life.

Jamar rides like the wind toward the capital.

When I was growing up, every kid in my neighborhood had a one speed bike. Just like in the movie, we rode to the park, the pool, to school and to the grocery store. We owned the road and knew all the cracks, potholes and short cuts along the way. We rode like our lives depended on it, even when it didn’t. If something happened, we’d be ready and NO ONE would catch us.

At 10 years old, we ruled the neighborhood and that’s all that mattered.

Bike for Life teaches kids the joy of biking as transportation. While we can’t take as many shortcuts as I took as I kid, we still go places that cars can’t go. We cruise the bike paths, careen under bridges, bump along the grass in the park, and get rock star parking at the grocery store.

We teach kids that you can go anywhere and do anything on a bike.

And, if you’re lucky, you might even take flight.

Thanks Jamar for the reminder.

The fall session of Bike for Life is now over, but you can still ride your bike well into winter. Stay tuned for more fall and winter adventures. 

These feet are made for biking: making memories to last a lifetime

Buba’s Feet at Vilas Beach

These feet are made for biking.
And playing in the sand,
talking to ducks,
jumping on rocks and just plain having fun.

But will they remember any of it as adults?
Will Bike for Life make a difference for these kids?

As Bike for Life’s summer session comes to a close, I’d like to think that the minds attached to the feet will carry with them positive memories and skills from the summer.

But since I can’t attach a tracking device to each child, I can only hope that one or two memories will stick with them and keep them motivated to eat healthy and to bike later in life.

Looking back at my childhood, I recall trips from elementary school and how they affected my life. A school field trip to the Milwaukee Museum in fourth grade taught me that dinosaurs were scary and cool and that there’s a great big world out there. I imagined myself on the streets of Old Milwaukee, which no doubt spurred an interest in all things historic. But more than anything, those trips gave me hope and served as an escape from a not so happy childhood (another story).

I’d like to think that the same is true for the kids that attend bike club, many of which have limited means. Bike club exposes kids to new worlds and that makes them more confident and independent. When kids bike 12.5 miles, they learn that they can go anywhere. When they get exposed to new adventures, they learn to handle the unexpected. These are skills that will serve them well in life.

Biking along Lake Monona with Monona Terrace and the State Capital in the background.

I’d also like to think they’ll remember the teachery things, such as how to make a healthy soda drink, how to cross a busy street and how to put air in their tire.

But more than likely, they’ll each take with them the one thing that touched them… perhaps biking over the bridges or under the tunnels, the elevator at Monona Terrace, or biking to the zoo. Or, they’ll remember the great snacks, or the time I fed them “bird style” because we ran out of cups (see photo below).

Regardless, I am confident that they will remember something. If I’m lucky, they’ll think that bike club was cool, just like I thought that dinosaur was cool. But more than anything, I hope they remember the joy and freedom of biking. I want them to remember that for two hours each week, they were happy. If I leave them with that, I will consider my job well done.

Thanks for the memories kids and see you on the bike trails this fall. 

Here I am feeding Soren “bird style” some of Miss Diane’s tasty homemade soda-sparkling water and a splash of apple juice – before leaving the zoo.

Diane Schwartz is the founder of Bike for Life and Get Kids Outside. You can find her working on her fall biking calendar and other fall outings for the Goodman Community Center.

Bubble Mania at PBS Kids Get Up And Go! Day!

What do you get when you take 20 gallons of bubble juice and add hundreds of kids?

One huge bubble party!

Get Kids Outside was delighted to return for a second year to Wisconsin Public Television’s annual  PBS Kids Get up and Go Day on August 3. Kids heard a concert with Mr. Steve and got to meet many of their favorite PBS characters like Super Why and The Cat in the Hat.

They also got to make lots of bubbles courtesy of Get Kids Outside. Enjoy the photos and many thanks to the wonderful volunteers who made the day so enjoyable for the kids.

And remember, it’s not too late to book your summer bubble party. Just contact Diane today at getkidsoutside@gmail.com.

A very calm bubble maker.

I like this kid’s style. So calm and yet so effective.

This kid wins the tiniest person with the largest bubble award.

Bubble Maestro. What style and poise. Clearly, he’s done this before.

The bouncing bubble trick from The Maestro.

The next best thing to making bubbles is popping them.

Mr. Steve sings the Bubble Song with lots of bubbles in the air thanks to a bubble machine provided by Get Kids Outside.

Mom lends a hand. Be sure you don’t inhale. Yuck.

Bubble mania at its best.

Do you like my new hat? I do, I do, I like your new party hat!

Team effort.

I love the colors in this photo. Pink, blue and her golden red hair.

Do you have an event that could benefit from a lot of bubbles, then contact Get Kids Outside today at getkidsoutside@gmail.com. There’s plenty of summer left and plenty of bubbles to make. 

Bike for Life: Tips on How to Bike with Kids

Bike for Life Crew 2012 on the Capitol City Bike Path near Goodman Community Center.

Bike for Life 2012 has started and it’s going very well, in part because of lessons learned from 2011. Here’s a run-down of 10 changes and tips for this year.

1. Three people are better than two: This year, I am fortunate to have two really great volunteers riding with me. This make a huge difference. With so many helmets to fit, tires to pump, and handle bars to adjust, having a third person really helps.

2. Don’t let the kids see, touch or smell the bikes/helmets until your ready to ride: Okay, maybe I exaggerate, but not really. This year, we start bike club with a team meeting before letting the kids see or touch the bikes and gear. Why? Because it’s impossible to get a child to listen when he or she’s got a helmet on their head or hands on a bike. Best not to fight it.

3. Teach hand signals and road safety on the bike path or next to road where you will start your ride:  Hand signals and other rules of the road make more sense when taught in context with bike path or road. Plus, you can line them up and reinforce things like leaving a lot of space between bikes. So, now we leave in two stages. We do our helmet and bike fitting at the Center and then we walk a short distance with our bikes to the path to line up.

Having fun at the Walter St. Park, our destination for the first day of bike club.

4. Avoid water bottles if you can on the first day: Kids love water bottles, but when there’s so much to do on the first day, they can become one more thing to deal with. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t hot and the ride was short. They all get their water bottles on day two. They needed them.

5. Have a behavior contract: I can’t say enough about behavior contracts. When kids and parents know what to expect, everyone rises to the occasion. If you want to see my behavior contract, please let me know and I’ll send it to you.

6. Have a destination for each trip: Kids love to bike, but they also like to play. Having a destination is part of the fun and makes them feel accomplished. On our first day, we rode to a nearby park. It wasn’t far, but the kids thought it was great. Next week, we’ll bike to the Machinery Row Bike Shop. They’re gonna love it.

7. Go over the rules, even briefly, on every trip: Repetition is 99 percent of learning. If you hear something enough, eventually it will stick. The top three rules to repeat are 1) Keep a safe distance from the bike in front of you; 2) Use verbal cues to alert others; and 3) Focus. This year, “focus” is a key part of our program. Remember kids, we do not hold conversations while riding single file on the bike path. And, we keep two hands on the handle bars.

8. Act like a team: This year, I’m reinforcing the team aspect of biking. Each session, we start with a short team building exercise. Sticking together as a team helps kids see the impact of their actions even when they are riding as an individual.

9. No Passing Allowed: I tell the kids not to pass because it puts the kibosh on competitive and unsafe behavior like racing. There are always one or two kids that fall into this catagory. I tell them, “You can race when you’re not at Goodman.”  They soon learn that passing simply isn’t necessary because everyone rides at a different pace.

10. Um, I don’t really have a 10, I just like having a round number.

So, tell me about your adventures with kids and biking. What works for you? What doesn’t?  

Lots of Bubbles at Wisconsin PBS Kids Open House

They came; they made bubbles; they left.

I just went through 12 gallons of bubble juice at Wisconsin Public Television’s Open House at Vilas Hall in Madison, WI.

That’s a lot of bubbles.
That’s a lot of kids.
That’s a lot of fun.

About 1000 kids and parent showed up to make bubbles, see Mr. Steve and enjoy their favorite PBS Kids characters.

If you want me to come to your special event, just send me an email at getkidsoutside@gmail.com.

Bubbles are fun and even the smallest children can enjoy them.

Is it ever too hot?

I wrote this piece during the last heat wave in July 2011. Now that we’re deep into a serious heat wave of 2012, it’s a good time to re-post. See my comments below for my new take on heat.  

I didn’t want to, but I cancelled Bike for Life on Friday afternoon (July 1) because the temperatures were 90 degrees with a heat index of 97.

Wisconsin licensing rules forbid children from engaging in outdoor activity when it’s above 90 degrees (except swimming of course). The rule is designed to keep kids safe, but it is also restrictive.

Yes, it was hot, but it wasn’t too hot for a healthy kid to bike less than a mile to Olbrich Park, go swimming, and then bike back. Imagine what kids do in the south?  They would never go outside in the summer with a rule like that.

I believe that rules like this teach kids to fear the outdoors. For example, we went skiing in sub zero temperatures and the kids were fine. They learned what to do to stay warm. The same is true of heat. The kids lost a valuable opportunity.

Next year, I’ll plan bike club in the mornings to avoid cancellations. I can’t change the rules, but I can change the times that we ride.

And, if it’s hot on Friday, I’ll be planning to do something else.

What do you do when the weather’s hot? 

When it’s okay to shoot a gun: Outdoor Skills Day

Ebrahim, Gavin and Juan target practice.

Year ago, shooting a gun was a rite of passage for boys and BB guns were common. Today, BB guns and bow and arrow sets are pretty much things of the past, but not at Outdoor Skills Day at MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette.

For one day each summer, kids learn how to shoot at targets, throw hatchets, cast a fishing line, cut wood, cook over a fire, start a fire without a match and lots more. I went with 13 kids ages 5 to 13 plus three parents.

At first, I was a little nervous, but once I saw how great the kids were behaving, I loosened up a bit. They were so respectful of each other and of the skills they were learning. The people at MacKenzie know what they’re doing. They made it safe.

The Bowhunters Association, DNR wardens and fisheries staff, and lots of volunteers were on hand to teach kids how to do things safely. They had the all the right equipment and plenty of room.  Kids learned that shooting a gun wasn’t about killing people, but about concentration and skill. It was wonderful to see the kids so focused.  I could see their self-confidence grow as they practiced. Experiential learning is so important for kids, especially high energy kids.

As a result of this trip, I’m inspired to bring an archery program to Goodman Community Center or to host our own Outdoor Skills Day. We could use a few more confident, respectful kids.

So what do you think?  Do you think events like this are okay?  What is your experience working with kids and outdoor skills? 

Tania (age 5) and Buba (age eight) work the cross-cut saw.

Angel (age 13) shoots a muzzle loader with help from a Wisconsin Muzzle Loader Association volunteer.

Mari (age eight) gears up for archery.

Ebrahim (age 5) throws and then hits the target. His face says it all.

Gavin (age eight) gets instruction from a Wisconsin Muzzle Loading Association volunteer before taking aim.