6 ideas for at-home camp

It’s a summer like no other. After weeks of remote learning, the school year unceremoniously blurred into summer and families all around the country are trying to adapt to this new normal.

For those looking for some ideas on how to occupy your kids during this COVID-19 pandemic experience, I thought I’d share some of what we’ve been doing. It’s probably not much different than what others are doing, but perhaps somebody stumbling across this blog will find an idea that will work for them.

In full disclosure, these ideas represent very small portions of our time, as with my husband and I both working from home, our sons have had MUCH more screen time than I would like and if it were cooler outside or if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, they wouldn’t be spending so much time on screens. It’s not all bad though, some of that screen time includes making videos and some of it includes socializing with their friends so I guess those times could be considered virtual play dates. (In other words, if your kids are on screens more than you’d like, you are not alone.)

Here are some of the non-screen things we’ve done so far.


Cruise the Zoo

I’ve always loved the Phoenix Zoo and we’ve spent many wonderful hours there through the years. When the reality of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic started sinking in, the zoo was among the local spots that came to mind – with no guests, how was the zoo going to be able to take care of all those animals? I was relieved when I heard that they decided to offer a drive-through option and tickets sold fast. We managed to get tickets for Memorial Day and I think I initially may have been more excited then the kids were about this.

We lined up in the parking lot in the vehicle-version of Disneyland lines, winding through the aisles. The process was organized and the line moved quickly. We found the Soundcloud audio tour on my phone and our 11-year-old took charge of pressing play each time we got to the sign indicating the place in our tour. There were enough animals out and about to enjoy it and seeing the zoo in a different way was fun.

Verdict from the boys: The younger ones really enjoyed it (ages 10 and 11) and the oldest one (13) was up late the night before so took a nap during part of the tour.

We got to watch this elephant play ball as we drove by during the Phoenix Zoo’s Cruise the Zoo.

As we drove through, my 11-year-old shared some nostalgic memories as he recognized certain areas from previous visits.

Fortunately the zoo recently reopened with additional safety guidelines, so hopefully we’ll be able to visit again soon and spend some time walking around outside to see more animals.

Learn more about the Phoenix Zoo here.

Time in the kitchen

While I would like to say that we are all taking turns with meals and the boys have learned amazing new culinary skills during our time at home, that’s not quite the case. However, they have increased their time in the kitchen helping to prepare meals. J, our 11-year-old, learned how to make a delicious Israeli salad for our Shabbat dinner.

We tried a meal delivery service to try to introduce some new recipes to our repertoire in a fun way – and yes, getting all the ingredients for a meal delivered in a big box to your front door, along with the exact measurements and clear instructions is fun. It helps break up the monotony about deciding what to prepare for dinner each night.

We ordered vegetarian meals from Home Chef, which is set up that you still prepare all the meals yourself. My favorite meals were Salmon Tacos, Cashew Tofu, and Roasted Beet and Goat Cheese Risotto (which ended up being a Shavuot side dish served with homemade cheese blintzes made from a recipe from Chabad of North Phoenix’s “Everything But the Ice Cream” Shavuot box). One great thing is that the kids each at least tried each of the new foods. I think when they help prepare meals, they are more likely to try them.

After a few weeks, we switched to Hello Fresh, which seemed to have some more variety in vegetarian meals. We just finished our first week and enjoyed Chermoula-Topped Tunisian Salmon with honey-glazed carrots and basmati rice pilaf and Crispy Chickpea Tabbouleh Bowls with creamy feta dressing. (See what I mean about getting new ideas? I never even heard of chermoula before this – it’s a North African herb sauce made from cilantro, paprika, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic.)

Another fun food project was Beth El Congregation’s youth group’s Zoom baking class, where the older boys made chocolate chip cookies.


Camp in a Box

With school shifting to an online format from March through May, I learned that although the boys seem to enjoy being on screens when it comes to games, they had a difficult time staying engaged during Zoom calls so I haven’t signed them up for any virtual camps yet. However, one of our local JCCs offered Camp in Box so we tried that. I hired my oldest son as a counselor-in-training so he could do the activities with them (although I was the trainer so did some guiding.)

Themes so far have been “Superheros” and “Space” – the activities were really creative and the kids had fun. They include crafts, games, outside activities and more. We are grateful to the Martin Pear JCC in Scottsdale for providing that local at-home option! Although the proposed schedule was for the day, they seemed to finish the activities in 2-3 hours, but it was still a nice break to the day and an opportunity to try something new.

Since the camp box comes with materials, we’re able to use the materials for additional activities, such as using the chalk to make a two-square court on the backyard patio. I think maybe we’ll try hopscotch next. Do kids still do that?

Drawing superheroes with chalk.

Cooling off outdoors

Now that we’re in the triple-digit temperatures of Phoenix summers, playing outdoors isn’t a viable option unless it’s in the early morning or evening. However, when you add water, it makes it a little more appealing. We don’t have our own pool, but we’ve visited my dad’s house a few times (social distancing, staying in the backyard), where the boys can go swimming.

Their Savta also got them a fun sprinkler they can use to play with in the backyard. We’ve also tried trampoline time with me spraying the hose on them as they jump on the trampoline and spray water squirters at each other. They had a great time doing that but knowing that trampolines are a top injury for kids, a wet, slippery trampoline makes me a bit nervous so we haven’t done that very often.

One morning they also had a water balloon fight with water balloons we purchased from Target. They had lots of fun with those, tossing it to each other back and forth until they broke (and they also threw some at each other), but it was short-lived and I still occasionally find little pieces of balloon in the rocks. However, it was a fun one-time activity!

Playing cards

One afternoon while at the store, I spotted a “6 in 1 Fun Pack” with six card games and added it to camp time. The games are Memory, Crazy Eights, Old Maid, Go Fish, Slap Jack and Matching. (These games can also be played with a standard deck of cards.) They’re quick games, but at least it’s a break from the screens and they interact with with each other.

Learning life skills

A friend forwarded me this great article about parents who created a Common Sense Camp for their kids, where they are teaching them life skills. I loved the idea so I’m trying to mix some of those activities in as well. These range from practical tips like housecleaning and cooking to understanding finances and practicing social skills. Probably not a camp highlight for the boys, but it helps keep our house cleaner. I’m also adding reading time and math practice to the schedule to help prepare for the school year.

What happens next?

School ended at the end of May and now we’re at the beginning of July, with about six weeks until the proposed beginning of school (unless that changes if COVID-19 numbers don’t go down.)

Ideally we’d like to get out of town for at least a weekend (or even a day), but haven’t planned anything yet. Are hotels safe? How about renting a cabin? Is renting an RV a good idea?

It would be nice to have some sort of break – and a visit to cooler weather, but unsure of what to do. For now we are grateful that we have what we need and that everyone is healthy. It’s heartbreaking how many people are hurting right now.

If you are struggling to keep your kids entertained this summer, hopefully you found something here that is helpful. If you’d like to share some of your ideas, please do!

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