Make the Most of Summer Outings

Learning opportunities abound at the zoo, the art museum, even the ballpark!



Make the Most of Summer Outings

You remember from your own childhood the sweet anticipation of summer's leisurely days stretching ahead of you — and want to afford your children (and yourself!) a break from the frenetic pace that typically accompanies the school year. But at the same time, you want to keep your kids' brains from melting into mush like butter in the midday sun. Luckily, these goals are not mutually exclusive.

Summer can be an opportunity for your budding thespian to attend drama camp at the YMCA, or for your young Einstein to try the science program at the local high school. But there are also myriad opportunities to make the most out of less structured warm-weather activities. Your kids will be having so much fun, they won't even notice they're learning.

Marine Biology

Thanks to the popularity of the animated movie Finding Nemo (and, more recently, Finding Dory), your child has probably already developed a newfound enthusiasm for aquatic species. If you plan a trip to your local aquarium, just say you're going to look for Nemo, Dory, and the recovering carnivore, Bruce the shark.

Before You Go

  • Visit the aquarium's website. Many have downloadable maps and activity sheets. An example of a good site is that of the Oregon Coast Aquarium — check out the coloring pages and fact sheets about different fish and sea mammals. 
  • Plan ahead, depending on your aquarium's offerings, so you can spend your time at the exhibits that hold the most interest for your child. 
  • Visit the library to borrow a book with pictures and names of fish and sea mammals. Make a list of some of the coolest-looking creatures in the book (or favorite Finding Nemo characters, if your child is a fan). Then make a game of trying to find them once you're at the aquarium.

At the Aquarium

  • Have your child use her map-reading skills to get you from point A to point B. This will be fun and challenging and will help develop an important life skill. 
  • With a younger child, try counting the number of fish in a tank. 
  • With an older child, make a "food chain" graph. Who eats whom? Who is at the top of the chain (sharks?) and at the bottom (krill?)? Who is in between? 
  • Write down new vocabulary words you come across (e.g.: invertebrate, cold-blooded, predator, dorsal fin). Also note the full-grown sizes of different fish and sea mammals for at-home activities.

Back Home

  • Look up the vocabulary words in a dictionary, then use them in a word search or crossword puzzle. 
  • On a long roll of craft paper, measure out six feet, marking each inch along the way. Then graph the sizes of different sea creatures, using one inch to represent one foot. For example, a four-foot long female sea otter would be graphed at four inches, and a 65-foot long male sperm whale at 65 inches. Add as many fish and animals as you can — it will give your child a great visual aid to understand relative size.


Zoos are some of the most popular summer destinations for families around the country. To avoid crowds, it's best to arrive first thing in the morning or later in the day. Depending on the size of your zoo, trying to tackle everything in one day may be tiring and overwhelming for your child — and could actually detract from the educational experience. If yours is a large zoo, plan to make a few trips instead (family memberships are often a good way to go if you visit often).

Before You Go

  • Check out your zoo's website to determine which exhibits are most interesting to your child, then plan your day accordingly. Download a map, if possible. Have your child mark her favorite animal exhibits on the map, then plot out the most sensible route from exhibit to exhibit — again, this helps develop map-reading skills. 
  • Let your child surf the Web site (with your supervision) to learn about what's available at the zoo. See if he can find feeding times for the animals, then make a list in order from earliest to latest — this will reinforce the concept of telling time. 
  • Some zoos will allow you to make an advance reservation for a personal tour with a knowledgeable staff member.

At the Zoo

  • Do a "science scavenger hunt." Have your kids find each of the following and write it down: a warm-blooded animal, a cold-blooded animal; a bird, a reptile, a mammal, an insect; an animal that walks on two legs, on four legs, on no legs; an invertebrate, a vertebrate; an herbivore, a carnivore, an omnivore. (Add your own categories depending on what's available at your zoo.)
  • As you explore the zoo, talk about what different animal species have in common. What are common traits of mammals? Which animals are natural predators and who are their prey?

Art History

During spring break, my husband and I took our kids (ages 5, 9, and 10) to Chicago. As we walked past the famous lion statues guarding the front doors of the Art Institute, I thought, Picasso! Renoir! Van Gogh! As it turned out, our boys could have spent the whole day in "Arms and Armor," comparing medieval swords, helmets and chain mail. Lesson #1 for attending art museums with kids: lower your expectations. Lesson #2, as my husband put it: "It's not about you, honey."

Before You Go

  • Again, most museums have Web sites that can be extremely helpful in planning your day. They will most likely have maps, pages describing the various exhibits, even tips for visiting museums with kids. One of the best sites for parents I found was from the The Art Institute of Chicago. 
  • Find out what interests your child, and plan your visit accordingly (again, challenge your child to map it out). Are there any artists he's been learning about in school who may have some pieces at the museum? It is truly a thrill to stand in front of an artwork you've only seen in a book. Alternatively, look for art representing historical periods he's studied. 
  • The Art Institute recommends preparing an "activity bag," containing a notebook for sketching, pencils, a map or museum guide (which you can get as soon as you arrive), and a favorite toy to occupy impatient or bored younger children.

At the Museum

  • Try "Postcard Games" (also an Art Institute suggestion). Pick up some postcards at the museum shop, then challenge your child to find those works of art. He'll enjoy both the thrill of the hunt and the sense of victory when he spots his quarry. 
  • Test your child's art savvy. Has she been learning about Georgia O'Keeffe at school (or by paging through art books at home)? Have her try to pick out the O'Keeffe in the room without looking at the identifying label. 
  • Relate what you see to world events and the history your child has been learning at school or reading about at home. Tell him, "This was painted during World War II," or "This sculpture was made during the Renaissance." Then pick a different work and have him read the label and tell you its historical context. 
  • Put on imaginary berets, sit down in front of a painting you like, and sketch it.

Back Home

  • Make your own exhibit displaying your sketches and postcards. Be sure to have your child help you label everything to build reading and writing skills. Continue to collect favorite objects and soon you'll have your own museum!


Nature is the biggest toy store out there, and everything's free. For a child, the smallest things can provide the greatest joys: looking for a four-leaf clover, blowing on a fluffy dandelion and watching the pieces scatter in the wind, hugging a tree — literally — and feeling the cool bark against her cheek. Hikes and unstructured "nature walks" can be great learning adventures for kids.

Before You Go

  • Find your local parks department online for ideas about local hiking trails or nature preserves. Again, download maps if possible. 
  • Make sure you have the appropriate gear. Check out The Lightweight Backpacker's "14 Essentials." Add notebooks, pencils, Ziploc bags, and jars for a scavenger hunt. 
  • Provide your child with a disposable camera so he can snap his own photos.

On Your Hike

  • Let your kids take turns leading the way, looking at the map to determine where to go next. Have them use the compass to figure out in which direction you're heading. Younger kids can feel empowered by simply pointing, "This way!" and having the family follow. 
  • Take a cue from I'm Bored! Over 100 Inspiring & Imaginative Ideas for Hours of Fun with Your Kids, by Suzy Barratt and Polly Beard, and go on a scavenger hunt. Use bags and jars to collect items such as: a red leaf, an acorn, a pine cone, a berry, a feather, a curved stick, a caterpillar, a ladybug, an ant, a dandelion, a clover (four-leaf optional).
  • Collect flowers for drying and pressing later — it will be fun for your kids to see the flowers change in appearance and texture over time.


Baseball is the quintessential symbol of summertime. And whether you're watching major leaguers or a Double-A team, baseball can provide valuable and fun lessons in math, history, and geography. Louise Gengler, women's tennis coach at Princeton, has designed a program called "Taking Kids Out," which aims to provide an academic experience while exposing children to baseball. Following is her advice:

Before You Go

  • Have the kids read a short book about baseball to help understand its historical context. Many children who pay attention to professional sports will be surprised to know baseball was once segregated. There are a number of good books for kids about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American professional player, but Gengler recommends Thank You, Jackie Robinson by Barbara Cohen. 
  • Print out or make copies of U.S. and world maps that your child can mark players' or teams' hometowns on. See At the Game, below. 
  • Pack a calculator and pencils.

At the Game

  • Mark the U.S. map with the teams' hometowns, challenging your child's directional knowledge - is the opposing team from the northeast? the midwest? Study the schedule to find out where the home team plays next. Use the team roster to plot the players' hometowns on the map (use the world map if there are players from outside the U.S.). 
  • If the players' birthdates are listed in the roster — or if your child has baseball cards — have him figure out the players' ages (with the help of the calculator, if needed). 
  • Introduce your child to the concept of filling in the baseball scorecard (most come with instructions for sports-challenged parents like myself). Gengler says this exercise helps with spatial concepts, addition, and the use of symbols.

Back Home

  • Pick up a newspaper and have your child peruse the sports section for information about the game he attended. Have him look at the box scores to see how his team or favorite player did. As Gengler says, "At least it gets kids reading the newspaper." 
  • Encourage your child to send fan mail to his favorite players (most teams will have a website with contact information). The art of letter-writing is also an important life skill which, combined with reading newspapers, means that "letters to the editor" can't be far behind!
Sorting and Classifying
Science & Nature Activities
Age 10
Age 9
Age 8
Fish and Marine Life
Games and Toys
Zoo Animals