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Forget the Beach… the Best Alternative Family Experiences For Summer

Having a family day out in the summer break does not have to involve the beach.

With a little creative thought, you'll find more summer activities in your region than you'll have time to pursue. Many are free and easy to try, and all will give parents and the kids some golden memories of the season to treasure forever.

The following list includes energetic family activities such as wild swimming and bike rides, to gentler activities such as visiting a butterfly centre or lavender field. All will provide both kids and parents with  unforgettable experiences that go beyond just sitting on a beach (or staying at home).

You might also want to build a summer bucket list using these tips, including many summer activities to do at home.

Try Wild Swimming

Taking to cold water can feel a little intimidating the first time you try it, especially with kids in tow. But choose the right location and you're in for an experience you'll never forget - in a positive way! Wild swimming is an increasingly popular activity, and most regions have plenty of lakes and rivers where swimming is encouraged.

Some places even have lifeguards and changing rooms to make things easier. You can always stick to paddling in the shallows if a full swim feels too daunting. Depending where you live, it might even be possible to swim up close with wildlife. Some coastal resorts let visitors swim with marine creatures, while inland attractions in some countries offer the opportunity to swim with otters.

Where's Your Nearest Cave?

Family groups peering inside a cave.

Caves are often forgotten about in lists of summer attractions, but give them a go. The subterranean environment offers a range of experiences. Families with younger kids could visit a properly facilitated cave system, with tour guides and visual effects.

Older children and teens seeking more thrills could have a go at caving and potholing. Then, there are historic cave sights, containing evidence of early human habitation. Wherever you go, these stygian realms offer a cool respite from the summer heat. Caves: they're educational and refreshing, as maybe just a little bit magic.

Tackle An Obstacle Course

Kids love to clamber over and under things. Adults, less so. But let yourself go at a local obstacle course and you'll build up some golden family memories. Triumph over adversity; test your physical strength and agility; laugh as dad gets stuck in the hanging tyre once again! Arrange to visit with friends and you could even hold a mini-competition, to see who can complete the course first.

Go Fruit Picking

Picking your own fruit can be a very rewarding family experience. You'll get to work as a team, selecting your own pickings, and also go home with a bucket full of tasty, fresh ingredients. It can be hot work - and perhaps not suited to younger children. Remember the sun cream and water bottles!

Admire The Lavender

There are few more magical sights than a hill of lavender fields in full, purple bloom. The fragrant plant flowers in July and August, and many lavender farms allow the public in to marvel at the spectacle during the summer. Trust me, your instagram feed will never get so many likes.

Baby Favorite: Visit A Butterfly Garden

Butterfly lands on child's outstretched palm

Zoos and animal parks can be expensive, and some people have issues with the ethics. Butterfly gardens offer an alternative, and often cheaper way to see natural beauties in a controlled environment. Kids will delight in the exotic winged species, though younger children may have to build up the courage to walk among these large insects.

A visit to a butterfly garden can also be an educational experience, as kids learn about metamorphosis and ecology.  Of all the activities on this list, this one will appeal most to babies, who will stare in wonder at the colorful creatures.

Take A Unique Train Ride

Trains aren't just a means to get from A to B. In many parts of the world, heritage lines are attractions in their own right. The UK, as the pioneer of rail travel, is particularly blessed with beautiful scenic railways. These often make use of long-closed track that has been given a new lease of life by volunteers and enthusiasts. These routes will typically give your family the chance to experience a ride in a vintage carriage pulled by a steam locomotive. Every child dreams of such a trip (and, if we're being honest, so does every parent).

Learn To Fly A Kite

You can fly a simple kite any time in a local park, but how about using the summer to truly master the art? Kite flying can get quite involved, with dozens of different stunts and techniques to attempt. You'll need a decent kite to perform the best tricks, but it can be worth it. Learning how to truly fly a kite with your kids is an enormously fun bonding experience.

Visit A State Park Or National Park

Most countries have some kind of National Park initiative, where large tracts of particularly scenic or biodiverse land are given protected status. The US alone has 63 National Parks, including the famous Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks.

The UK has 10, and recently moved to make London the world's first National Park City thanks to its surprisingly high tree coverage. These varied terrains make exceptional and highly memorable places to visit. Plus, the professional set-up means you'll get a taste of the rugged wild with plenty of facilities at hand. State Parks offer something very similar, but are managed at a state rather than federal level.

Family Hiking

What if you live a long way from a National Park? Well, there's nothing to stop you going for kid friendly hikes in other parts of the country. Taking family members on a long ramble through the countryside is one of those experiences that challenges both the body and the mind.

Use the opportunity to show your kids map-reading and other navigation skills, while looking out for the types of wildlife you wouldn't see in a built up area. All while giving yourselves some free exercise.

Family Bike Rides

Family of four cycles through woodlands

Alternatively, hop on your bikes. It's important to plan ahead and work out a route that suits your family. If you're going with a younger child for the first time, have a good chat beforehand about the different types of road you'll encounter, and how to stay safe. It always pays to have some kind of landmark or feature of interest to aim for, so that the ride has a focus and a well-defined mid-point.  

Learn To Ride A Horse

If cycling feels a bit - to mix metaphors -pedestrian, then you could take the family on a horse ride. Learning to ride is easier than you might think, with plenty of stables offering the training. Few things can match the excitement of climbing onto a horse (or pony) for the first time, and it's a unique way to see the countryside.

Get Lost In The Forest

Well, not literally. Depending where you live, a lush, expansive forest may or may not be on the doorstep. But it's worth the journey. Nothing quite compares to the experience of a few magic hours walking through dense woodland. You are guaranteed to spot unusual wildlife, find peculiar fungi, and stumble upon gnarled mature trees that the kids will love. Plus, it'll test your navigation skills to the limit. If you happen to live in the London area, try our guide to some of the capital's best ancient woodlands.

Go Foraging

Learning bushcraft and foraging skills is another highly rewarding activity to do in woodlands. In the first instance, you should enrol the family on a professional tour, which will help you know what to look out for and, importantly, what to avoid. Learning these skills will set your kids up with a lifelong passion for the natural world... and perhaps furnish you with some free ingredients for home baking. Autumn is the best season for foraging, but the summer also bears plentiful fruit.

Climb A Big Hill

Do a search for 'biggest hills in XYZ', where XYZ is your local county or region. Then, draw up a list of, say, the top five and see if you can 'bag' them all over the summer break. The benefits are many. You'll gain a better understanding of local geography. You'll improve the family fitness through all those ascents. And, most importantly, you'll get to share some impressive views. If you're in the London area, we've put together a guide to some of the loftiest options.

Camping, Glamping And Sleeping Outdoors

One of the more obvious items on a summer bucket list is to go camping. Every family should try the experience at least once. If you find the prospect a little stressful (What if it rains? What if we can't get the tent up? What about the toilet?), then give 'glamping' a go. This gives you all the benefits of camping, but with everything already prepared for you, often with higher-end facilities than you'd get on a typical camp site. Another option is to simply camp in your back garden (or the garden of willing friends). Experienced campers could graduate onto the next level of simply sleeping outside without a tent - though, of course, pick a warm night with no rain!

Visit A Stately Home Or National Monument

You may have already exhausted all of the obvious attractions in your local area, but with a little research, you should be able to find new places to visit just a little further out. Grand houses, picturesque follies, ancient landmarks and sites of historical interest are all potential targets. Most such sites will be geared up for kids (and a mom or dad who want to find unusual gifts in the mandatory shop), and many allow you to picnic in the most attractive locations.

Take The Kids To A County Fair

Living in the city, we can often lose site of what goes on in the vast acres of countryside that provide most of our food and drink. Visiting a county fair (also called a county show) is a good way to show the kids where their food comes from, and much else besides. It's a chance to get close to livestock, watch agricultural machinery in action and, often, view some eccentrically large vegetables. Many county fairs include rides and stalls to provide further diversions for families.

Make The Most Of Your Own Backyard

And finally, if you can't go out on an adventure, and are stuck at home for whatever reason, there are way to make more use of your own backyard. Have a water balloon fight, plug the garden hose into a slip-and-slide, get hold of some giant board games, have a teddy bear's picnic, set up a scavenger hunt, invite friends over for an outdoor movie night, make ice cream and enjoy ice cream sandwiches, or give the kids cooking classes around the barbecue.


Written By
Matt Brown

Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.

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