Consider it quality time squared: You get to spend the day with your kids, they learn about the joy of helping others, and everybody makes the world a better place. When choosing an activity, take a cue from the things that your kid loves. If he’s obsessed with dogs, he’ll enjoy rounding up supplies for the animal shelter; a nature nut will dig a trail cleanup. What’s age-appropriate? Kathy Saulitis of generationOn, a New York City–based nonprofit foundation that partners with youth service groups, has a few suggestions: Young children might visit a nursing home or make cards for people in hospitals, while older kids can collect food for a food bank or organize a car wash to raise money for a cause.
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Kick the Can
Pass on touch football for something that puts everybody on a level playing field, like boccie or croquet. Or learn the rules of classic play-ground pastimes, like Capture the Flag and Kick the Can, which are infinitely customizable to the size, age, and ability of your crowd and require little equipment. Find out how to play these games and a bunch of others at bluearth.org.
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Make a Time Capsule
Preserving your artifacts is a fun way to celebrate your family now and later—just don’t bury the collection. “When it’s unearthed, if ever, it’s usually a soggy mess,” says Paul Stephen Hudson, a cofounder of the Atlanta-based International Time Capsule Society. Pile everything into an archival box, then stow it away in a cool, dark place. Include the big stuff (artwork, school reports, notes to your future selves) and the little (movie stubs, a printout of a Facebook page, a toy with its batteries removed so they don’t corrode). Items that won’t stand the test of time: delicate clothing, food, or tapes and discs that will be outdated by technology. Add a silica-gel pack (which comes with new shoes) to absorb moisture, and set a date for the big reveal in 25 years.
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Stick to surefire zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and bush beans, says Charlie Nardozzi, a Vermont-based gardening expert and writer (howtogrowing.com). Use a one-by-two-foot self-watering planter and let your cofarmer handle the watering and harvesting. You may pull more than your share of the weight (and weeds), but if it convinces your kids to eat a vegetable, it’s sow worth it.
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Teach your kids an old family recipe, or start a brand-new tradition by baking bread. Sound too Laura Ingalls for you? Actually, if your kiddos can mold Play-Doh and make mud pies, they’ll be experts at kneading dough. (The hands-on fun quotient is the same, but the result is much more appetizing.) Find a foolproof whole wheat bread recipe.
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You’ve got a hard drive full of family photos, but drawing self-portraits captures the present in a more revealing way. Preserve the results for posterity by displaying the masterpieces gallery-style on a wall. Or scan and upload the artwork, then have the images transferred onto everything from postage stamps (pictureitpostage.com) to totes and water bottles (shutterfly.com), so you won’t have to wonder whose is whose.
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And pitching a tent in the backyard counts. With the free app Project Noah (for iPhone and Android; projectnoah.org), kids can finally get an answer to “What’s that weird bug over there?”: Snap a photo of wildlife and the app soon sends an ID. Once the sun sets, keep them entertained with good old shadow puppets. Learn the “flying bird” with the help of the iPhone app LED Shadow Puppets ($1, iTunes). And don’t forget to brush up on ghost stories for around the campfire (er, flashlight). You’ll find plenty of ideas and more at ultimatecampresource.com.
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Start a Family Book Club
Choose stories that appeal to all members, no matter their age. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Jumanji both have humor adults can enjoy, too. (Click here for suggestions for family books.) Let one person read aloud, or take turns so that you can experience the story unfolding together. Afterward, kick back and watch the movie version to see how it stacks up.
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Go on a Scavenger Hunt
Limit the territory to the backyard or the inside the house and kids will suddenly notice objects that they usually overlook. Set a time limit (a half hour for 20 clues should do it), and supply each child with a bag to hold his booty and a list of clues. Spark their imagination with things that are open for interpretation, like “something that smells really bad” or “an object that starts with the letter K.” (This also keeps the kids from clobbering one another while racing to the one blue spatula.) When time is up, tally who found the most items. Aside from bragging rights, the winner gets a fun prize, such as a gift certificate to the movies or the ice cream shop.
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Make up a Song
Who says your family can't start their own band? (The Brady's did it, right?) End the monotony of long car rides or Saturday morning chores to sing together and create lyrics that no one will ever forget.
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Take a Staycation
Treat it like a real vacation—yes, even from chores—and plan ahead, says Matt Wixon, the author of The Great American Staycation ($10, amazon.com). Get day-trip ideas from your local visitors’ bureau or a regional parenting website. Libraries and parks departments often offer fun activities; some craft stores hold art classes. Try to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour with the pinsetters at a bowling alley or the projectionists at a movie theater. (Hey, it never hurts to ask. And you may get free popcorn.)