Believe it or not, planning a terrific summer begins with just one simple step: Start early. It might be hard to think about sunny days and warmer temps when you’re still sporting winter coats and rain boots, but did you know that February and March are the ideal months to get started?
Here are 25 tips and ideas for planning fun- and learning-filled days that are sure to make your kids declare, “This was the best summer ever!”
Plan as soon as you can
- Compile a summer bucket list in partnership with your kids. Sit down and dream about the places you want to go and the things you want to do as a family, and note the camps and activities the kids are most eager to participate in. When summer comes, write each easy-to-do activity on an individual piece of paper and put them all in a “summer fun” box; let the kids take turns choosing.
- Book your summer camping trip. It’s not too late! Even if you haven’t booked your prime campsite or yurt for July or August, you can still find some spots at great family campsites. ParentMap’s camping guide will help you plan like a pro.
- Purchase one or two memberships to a favorite museum or zoo (perhaps one indoor spot and one outdoor) and plan for multiple visits over the summer, allowing you to take your time and get the most bang for your buck. You’ll get discounts and early registration for camps at your family’s favorite spots, such as area zoos, aquariums and children’s museums. Or explore our guide to affordable under-the-radar family memberships that will help make your summer super cool.
- Mark free days for state and national parks. Admission to state parks is free to visitors on March 19; April 11 and 22; June 6–7 and 13; Aug. 25; Sept. 26; and Nov. 11 and 27. National parks are free on April 18, Aug. 25, Sept. 26 and Nov. 11. So if you don’t want to shell out for a Discover Pass or national park admission, now is the time to mark those dates on the calendar.
- Visit ski resorts in the summer for loads of family outdoor fun in spectacular settings and with fewer crowds (while also benefiting from off-season discounts). Crystal Mountain, Whistler and Mt. Hood Skibowl’s Summer Adventure Park are just a few regional ski areas that offer thrilling summer activities, such as gondola rides, biking, zip-lining, family activities and more.
- If you must go to a Disney theme park this summer, plan to travel in May or early June, before school ends, to benefit from shorter wait times and cooler temperatures. When you’re in Disneyland, grab a Southern California CityPASS to save money and skip the long lines. Our guide has more tips for getting the most out of a trip to Disneyland.
- Plan trips to regional family vacation hot spots for next year. Yes, really. The best time to book popular Washington state destinations, such as Campbell’s Resort on Lake Chelan, Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Seabrook and the cabins at Cama Beach State Park on Camano Island, for next summer is now. Interested in something a bit out of the ordinary? Discover one-of-a-kind destinations kids love, from tree houses to lighthouses.
Sign up for cool camps
- If you’re looking for budget-friendly camps, then community centers may be your best bet. You’ll find that these centers offer a variety of day camps at reasonable prices and close to home. Boys & Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts also offer affordable summer camps, with some financial assistance available.
- Sign up to be notified by email when registration for high-demand camps opens. You can also sign up for newsletters from your favorite museums that offer camps to get early-bird notification.
- Team up with other neighborhood parents and create your own themed summer camp, rotating daily between homes. You’ll save money, and camps can easily be tailored to kids’ ages and interests.
Have a blast on a budget
- Seattle Parks and Recreation offers free beginner swimming lessons for kids ages 6–16 during summer afternoons and evenings at nine beaches around the city. To register, call 206-684-4078 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; registration begins June 1.
- Looking for fun, free indoor ways to beat the heat? Here’s a quick cheat sheet: Kids Bowl Free, through which kids can bowl for free at locations across the Seattle area; your local library’s summer reading program events and treasure trove of performances, story times, STEM activities and more; dirt-cheap morning movies through the Regal Cinema Summer Movie Express program; and indoor playgrounds at area malls, such as Kid’s Cove in Bellevue Square and at Alderwood Mall. See a full list of free and low-cost fun-out-of-the-sun options.
- Make a splash. A local spray park is one of the cheapest thrills around, and many are worthy of a day trip, including the super spray park at Edmonds’ shady City Park; Jefferson Park’s spray pad (and steep slides) in South Seattle; the awesome Willis Tucker Park in Snohomish; or the Point Ruston sprayground in Tacoma. See a full roundup of spray parks around the sound.
- Reserve free museum passes at your public library branch. Seattle Public Library’s Museum Pass program offers passes to 15 venues (including the Seattle Aquarium, the Museum of History & Industry, MoPop and the Living Computer Museum and Labs, plus a boat ride at The Center for Wooden Boats). From the King County Library System (KCLS), you can check out tickets to eight attractions (hottest tickets include KidsQuest Children’s Museum and the Seattle Aquarium). The Pierce County Library System offers passes to six South Sound attractions, and Tacoma Public Library offers a similar program.
- You can also plan outings to coincide with one of the many free museum days, or to the region’s many wonderful always-free museums, such as Puget Sound Navy Museum in Bremerton; the pay-what-you-can Children’s Museum of Tacoma; and the Klondike Gold Rush museum and Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle.
- Rather than paying pool fees, dive into the area’s great lakes, such as at Madison Park Beach, Green Lake, Pine Lake Park in Sammamish and Idylwood Beach Park in Redmond. And don’t forget about what some say is the best family beach in Puget Sound, Jetty Island, accessible by free foot ferry in July and August. Find more beach tips in ParentMap's beach guide.
- Be a tourist in your own town. Spend less and experience more by picking up a Seattle CityPASS or a GetOutPass to save on the Seattle area’s best attractions. The Chinook Book, both its print and mobile editions, are also packed with great discounts for museums, plays and activities; and you can always check your local parents’ listserv, Facebook group or Buy Nothing group to snag activity coupons other families aren’t using.
- Go maker-mad. Have a budding coder, comic artist, 3-D crafter or superhero fanatic? Libraries have been upping their STEAM game so much in recent years that it’s hard to keep pace. KCLS’s downtown Bellevue Library’s IdeaX Makerspace hosts introductory workshops and drop-in creativity lab sessions, such as a Harry Potter crafting class and Minecraft coding. The Seattle Public Library’s LibraryLab offers cool classes such as robot coding and putting together Little Bits inventor kits. Or skip the trip and create a home-based kids’ makerspace on the cheap to inspire a summer of endless invention.
Offset screen time
- Set sensible screen-time rules for summer and stick to them. Agreeing on rules will cut down on daily negotiations for just one more show or one more hour. Some families maintain the same screen-time rules as those applied during the school year, allow more tech access or even tie rules to how often kids get outdoors. Find practical tips on managing summer screen time.
- Seize the play! Plan a screen-free adventure with “52 Seattle Adventures With Kids,” ParentMap’s indispensable guide to affordable fun around Puget Sound. Written and edited by parents, for parents, it is packed with insider tips on saving, snack-time stops and summer staycation know-how.
- To maximize time away from screens, keep the gear for your family’s favorite outdoor games — such as badminton, Frisbees, croquet, horseshoes and sidewalk chalk — stashed in the car trunk for spontaneous fun.
- Enjoy old-school fun. Use spray paint to turn concrete pavers into a permanent hopscotch path for your backyard. Painting the stepping-stones is a fun family project, creating a colorful game that won’t wash away in the rain.
- Make a screen exception. During the long, hot days of summer, no one wants to be indoors, even to watch a favorite movie. A backyard DIY movie screening is a perfect solution, whether you invite a crowd or just the family. Get top tips for hosting an outdoor movie night that’s outta sight.
- Write down some of your family’s summer adventures on a calendar, or ask your kids to create a journal to record their favorite summer days. Not only does it help you plan ahead for next summer, but you can also look back on it once school begins.
- Include plenty of unstructured downtime to unwind. Give your kids time to explore, read and get outside on sunny days. Or stay inside with a really good read. Find fabulous book lists for summer reading.
Editor's note: This article was first published in 2015 and has been updated for 2020.