When you were a kid, summer activities were a great escape. Your only goal each day was to figure out the bigger thrill: hide and seek with the neighbor kids, a game of catch with your brother, or rereading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾. You were completely free. Fun was your only endgame.
You’re an adult now, and that comes with its own benefits: You can stay up as late as you like playing penny poker with your neighbors, rent a camper and tour Yellowstone, swim in the deep end. But when was the last time you actually did any of that? When was the last time you spent a whole afternoon on an inflatable raft, sipping sun tea and reading a great mystery novel?
If your answer is “Gosh, I just took a day off last week,” but all you did was run errands, that doesn’t count. Crossing things off your to-do list might feel satisfying, but it rarely feels joyful. And joy is the name of the game this summer.
In the event you need more pragmatic motivation, know that the fields of neurology and psychoneuroimmunology are increasingly demonstrating how pleasure affects the health and longevity of the human body. (For more on that, search for “A Real Pleasure.”) It turns out that a certain amount of unbridled enjoyment is good for you.
The first step to having more fun with summer activities is carving out time for it. Make weekends sacred by setting good boundaries: Turn off work email on Friday afternoon and leave it off until Monday morning; dedicate at least an hour on a weekend day to ditching your smartphone; say no to some time-draining requests. Also, remember that PTO (paid time off) hours don’t have to be used for doctor’s appointments or renewing your driver’s license. The next time you have a few PTO hours accrued (and no big fires to put out at work), devote some of them to deliberate fun.
Has it been so long since you planned for summer fun that you’re not even sure what it looks like? To help you kick things off, we polled Experience Life staff and readers on their top suggestions for making the most of the season. Use this list as a jumping-off point for your own brainstorming. And whatever you decide to do, have fun! Summer’s best days will be here (and gone) before you know it.
Be a Tourist in Your Own Town
When you live somewhere long enough, it stops being an interesting destination and becomes the surrounding area where you buy groceries and get your car serviced. This summer, treat your hometown like a new-to-you destination.
(1) Tour your city’s local landmarks. Is your city known for its fountains? Parks? Boardwalks? Well-preserved early-American architecture? Take a day — or a few consecutive weekends — to tour your area’s notable attractions.
If you’ve already seen them all, (2) design a custom tour based on your own personal interests. Love local food? Spend a few weekends visiting your city’s farmers’ markets. Coffee enthusiast? Tour the area’s artisan coffeehouses. Bike geek? Tour the local parks and byways on two wheels.
Or head inside and (3) explore the local art museums. Most major art museums have one night a week or month when admission is free, and many have special family days or special events just for kids. Also, the majority of museums display only a fraction of their permanent collection. So if it’s been a handful of years since your last visit, it’s unlikely you’ll encounter the same art. Of course, art isn’t the only thing on display in most areas.
You can also (4) explore non-art museums. Most major metropolitan areas have a variety of collections — history museums, science museums, children’s museums, transportation museums — and many have obscure collections (the Science Museum of Minnesota boasts the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices) that will make for a very memorable trip.
Or (5) peruse outdoor collections and other unique oddities such as plant conservatories, arboretums and sculpture parks, or take a day trip to see a quirky landmark like the world’s largest ball of twine.
In early summer, (6) find a schedule of special summer events and pencil in the ones that interest you. If they’re in your calendar, you won’t forget them, but you can always opt out if something else comes up in the meantime. Look for art fairs, block parties, neighborhood garage sales, concerts or movies in the park, ethnic food fairs, guided nature hikes in city parks, and community education classes.
Or keep it spontaneous; use a few PTO hours and (7) see a matinee in the middle of the week.
Channel Your Inner Child
Your interests have probably evolved since you were a youngster, but that doesn’t mean what you did as a kid isn’t still a blast. So invoke your inner 11-year-old, borrow the kids’ baseball gloves and (8) play catch with your sweetheart. For an extra challenge, refuse to talk about any logistics or responsibilities (groceries, bills, house repair, you name it) while you play; instead, pretend it’s a first date and talk about only those things you spent hours talking about when you first met.
(9) Hit the nearest water park. Go down the biggest slide at least once.
Next time it’s your turn to handle the yard work, (10) mow your name into the lawn or (11) mow in a maze for your kids and then chase them through it.
If it’s not your turn to tend the lawn, grab a ball and your neighbor and (12) play a pick-up basketball game at the park, or invite your cousins over to(13) play a game of bocce ball.
Or hit the nearest thrift store and buy a stash of cheap, worn-out soccer balls to (14) play soccer with your dog. If one ball gets destroyed in a tooth-puncture incident, just pull out another ball and keep going. Your dog will think you’re a wizard.
Or (15) take your dog to the park for a game of Frisbee.
In the evening, invite friends over to (16) play board games. Include a few that you played as a kid (Monopoly? Battleship? The Game of Life?).
If you have a whole day at your disposal, (17) re-create summer camp: Gather a small group of adult friends and organize a day of crafting and outdoor activities. Build a fire in the evening and roast marshmallows.
If you have half a day, use a few PTO hours to engage in the youthful art of “ditching” and (18) take the morning off to treat your significant other to a leisurely breakfast at home or your favorite eatery.
Rediscover Your Yard
What do you do most often in your backyard? Pick up dog poop? Traverse it to take out the garbage? Enough!
One night after work, (26) have a family picnic in your backyard, followed by a game of Frisbee. You’ll feel like you’ve been on a mini-vacation on a work night.
Take a Friday night and (27) camp in your backyard. Pitch a tent, build a fire, roast some kabobs, watch the stars. In the morning, make coffee over an open fire.
Rent a movie projector, tack a sheet on the garage and (28) have an open-air movie screening. Select a children’s movie and invite the neighborhood kids for a showing, or get a summer action movie and invite a group of adult friends.
(29) Start a garden or expand your existing one. If you’re a gardening novice, just stick in one tomato plant or a short row of peas and see what happens. If it fails, you’ll have learned a few things about what went wrong so you can do it differently next year. If you already have a garden, expand its dimensions or try planting something entirely new.
When it’s harvest season,(30) grill the veggies (just toss or brush them with olive oil, salt and pepper prior to grilling, then squeeze on a little lemon once you’ve pulled them off the fire).
For dessert, (31) fire-roast some peaches, and enjoy the enticing aroma wafting across your yard.
If you have a deck and a lawn chair, or a shared courtyard, or even just a small stretch of earth and the ability to sit cross-legged, use it to (32) spend five minutes outside before work. Bring a cup of coffee and the paper, or just sit in silence. A few minutes outside before you start your day can make a world of difference in your mood.
On weekend mornings, when you have more time, (33) sit in your yard for an hour. Take a book and soak up the sun (don a sun hat so you don’t burn). Or take your computer or smartphone and catch up on Twitter or Tumblr; don’t forget that mobile technology can follow us anywhere — even outside.
At night, (34) spend a few minutes in the front yard enjoying the sunset and waving to the neighbors.
On a night when the temperature is more moderate, let the outside in by (35) sleeping with the windows open.
Make a Splash
Water and summer are like vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce — good on their own but better together. The most obvious way to get off dry land is to (36) swim.
Choose whatever body of water feels most inviting — lakes, rivers, pools. Make a day of it and spend your time out of the water lounging nearby and listening to the waves. (37) Learn a new swim stroke.
Spend quality time just (38) floating and staring at the sky. (39) Go tubing down the nearest river or(40) water-ski on a nearby lake.
When you’re done, (41) skip stones along the shore.
Learn Something New
Treat the summer like a lost semester — but not the daunting and dull I-have-to-take-this-class-to-graduate kind. Make it a semester filled with learning all the things you’ve wanted to try but have never gotten around to. The human brain is hard-wired for learning, so even if you hated school, you may be surprised to discover how much you love learning when the subject is something that truly interests you. The list of things you could study is infinite, but here are some ideas to get you started:
Buy or check out some instructional CDs from the library and (42) learn another language. You can listen on your commute, or load the lessons onto your MP3 player and listen while you work out or walk the dog.
(43) Learn the constellations; lying outside under the stars is half the fun. So is sharing the knowledge with your family or friends.
(44) Join or start a summer book club. Dive into all those “great summer reads” you’ve been collecting forever but have never cracked open.
(45) Join a rowing club. You’ll get a great workout and an unparalleled chance to learn about your local watershed.
(46) Teach yourself to write with your non-dominant hand; it’s a good workout for your brain — and it’s a fun party trick!
(47) Trade an hour of TV time for an hour of time learning something through iTunes U (where many university lectures are free). Or try YouTube, where you can learn almost anything — how to knit, how to play the guitar, how to tie a Windsor knot, how to make a cherry pie. If you can think it, someone somewhere has made an instructional video about how to do it!
(48) Try out a new fitness or dance class and discover a type of movement you really love.
Dedicate Yourself to Laziness
Last but not least, be sure to carve out some quality time to (49) do absolutely nothing.
And if that nothing can be done while (50) hanging in a hammock, so much the better.
Special thanks to all the ELreaders who contributed ideas to this story through Facebook and Twitter: Dan Buettner, Jennifer Brentano, Justin Cascio, Dionna Dalzell, Desiree Fernandez, Joanie Tepoorten Funderburk, Melannie Garafola, Luisa Gerasimo, Ivon Gullberg, Adrienne Harvey, Sanna Joy Horsley, Angie Petersen Hurley, Brian Johnson, Cindy Joseph, Jessica Kasmerchak, Erwan Le Corre, Glynnis Lessing, Amy May Moss, Karen Price, Peg Kuenster Rewey, Lisa Robertson, Katie Smith, Deb Sweeney, Leslie Somma, Kristi Strelow, Susie Whitlock, Eric Wilcox, Scot Wocicki, and Kari Wright.
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.