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Surviving a Two Week Staycation with a Houseful of Middle Schoolers

Yes, you heard me right.  I’m staring down the barrel of a 17-day Holiday Break with five wild & wooly kids, all middle schoolers (or close enough). 

As I write this, Christmas Break is only three days away.  We will be traveling to see family for the first few days, but after that, it’s a Super Frugal Staycation all the way.  And Dad has to work some of that time, so this Mama’s trying to get prepared.

Our kids are all close in age (just about stair-stepped), which makes for some interesting times 🙂  Most of their lives, we’ve sort of run them as a herd – we all go everywhere together and do pretty much the same activities.  For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been that Mama with her little row of ducklings following behind. 

Or, more realistically, that crazy lady trying to herd her cats with a feather duster.  I’ve been known to holler “LEONARDS, MOVE OUT!!”  in public places.  Recently I’ve been asked to stop this behavior  😀 

As they grow up (boo), they’re of course developing interests apart from each other, so this may very well be one of the last big holiday breaks where we’re all together, all the time.  Bittersweet, I tell ya.  End of an era, but this Mama’s looking forward to the Teenage Employment Phase.  

Meanwhile, we’ve got a Staycation to plan.  Below are some of the ideas I’ve gathered.  I tend to overplan, so pick and choose as you see fit, for your herd of cats. (Some links below may be affiliate link – purchasing through my affiliate link helps to support my family!)

Activities at Home

Free Range Arts & Crafts

I find that glue and paint are still favorites with this bunch.  I plan on gathering painting supplies, clay (plus carving tools), whittling knives, popsicle sticks and hot glue, and whatever cheap random crafting supplies I can find.  That includes pine cones and sticks from outside, bits and baubles from my sewing shelves and unwanted hardware from Dad’s garage.  Also seems like a good time to clean out the kitchen junk drawer.  (I don’t tend to buy craft kits because with so many kids it gets expensive fast. Plus I like the creativity required when you just have a bunch of ‘ingredients’.)

Free-form arts & crafts tend to work best for us, since we have a wide range of art abilities, interest, and insistence on creative expression.  I do like to offer a wide variety of media to work with, from the standard fare to the absurd (melted crayons, charcoal, homemade berry dye, potato stamps, papier mache, fabric).  Speaking of fabric, the girls have been asking me to teach them to sew.  Maybe this is a good time to do a little dabbling!

Drawing Games & Story Telling

When the kids were young, we used to sit around the kitchen table and have drawing challenges.  We’d all try our best to copy dragons or princesses or animals from a book, and learn about complimenting each other’s work 🙂  Or play that game where one person starts a drawing then passes the paper to the person beside them, and each person around the table adds something to it until it’s the craziest drawing you’ve ever seen, and it makes absolutely no sense, and everyone’s falling out of their chairs laughing. 

We also like to do a storytelling version of that.  I’m sure you’ve played this – someone starts a story, telling just a line or two, then passes it to the next person.  They add a couple things, then pass it on.  Last time we played this, we had Darth Vader and explosions in every story, lol!

Science Experiments & Gross Stuff

My kids like to mix weird stuff together and see what happens.  If it explodes, all the better.  I already buy baking soda and vinegar at Sam’s Club – why not? 

We’re a little late to the game, but we’re also going to explore the world of Slime, a favorite of middle schoolers.  A few recipes to get you started:

Games & Puzzles

We like to play games.  We even like to flip the board over when we’re not winning, lol! We’re a pretty competitive bunch, and the cool thing about middle schoolers is that they’re down with a wide range of games – from high-stakes Go Fish to a Round-Robin Chess Tournament to good old fashioned War.   Some healthy competitions we’re considering:

  • Monopoly (Groan! No other game is your Best Frenemy like Monopoly!  We will play this exactly ONCE during our 17 day Staycation. So don’t keep asking.)
  • Poker for Pennies (or Pretzels, if we’re hungry)
  • Oregon Trail card game (Gah! Died of dysentery AGAIN!)
  • Various obnoxious games where you have to lick cards and stick them to your forehead, or slap yourself in the face with a piepan full of whipped cream, or speak while your mouth is held open with a torturous dental-surgery-looking device.  Hey man, whatever it takes.  These are middle schoolers.
  • Twister-A-Thon  (Actually, this is part of our annual New Years Eve tradition.  Can’t go wrong here.)

Rock Painting

In calmer moments, we may spend time on our newest hobby, rock painting.  Gramma is the one who got us started with this one.  Did you know there are groups in most cities/areas that paint rocks, then hide them in conspicuous places around town…intending just to brighten someone’s day?  What a nice thing to do!  They’re being crafted especially for specific recipients who need a boost, and whole rock gardens are springing up in places where they can bring the most smiles.

Kitchen Adventures

My kids love to cook and bake.  And eat.  So I’m sure we’ll spend plenty of time in the kitchen.  Aside from having the kids make their own meals when I’m too busy blogging (haha), I’m thinking these ideas sound fun:

  • Salt Dough Ornaments
  • Bread Dough Sculpting
  • DIY Pizza Buffet
  • Pantry Challenge (cooking show style)
  • Fudge-A-Thon (we HAVE to have fudge during the holidays!)
  • Gingerbread Houses (we always make these, then smash them on New Year’s Eve)

Read Alouds & Lego Challenge

I’m a book lover, a teacher by nature, and a homeschool mom from way back.  These kids don’t stand a chance! For a long time we were reading the Harry Potter series aloud as a family.  Then they started watching the movies ahead of the books…at school…so I had to admit defeat there.  Grr! 

But I’m ready for another round!  Put me in, coach!

While we are reading, the kids need something fiddly to do with their hands.  Legos work pretty well, if you can keep them from rocking the bucket back and forth, making a lot of noise.  We often like to issue each other Lego Challenges.  Everyone gets an equal scoop of pieces.  Someone throws out a challenge “Vehicle, only two wheels!” or “House with a swimming pool!” or “Space Ship with Robots!” and each person makes the best version they can with the pieces they have.

Other fun ways to up your Lego game:

  • Lego version of the pass-it-on story or drawing.  Each person adds a predetermined number of pieces to the structure.  
  • Round Robin Lego Building – each person starts a structure.  When the timer dings, everybody moves one chair to the left and continues building.
  • Lego-style 3D Pictionary – your team has to guess what you’re building before the timer goes off
  • Challenge the kids to build something related to the story you’re reading

Movies and Electronic Devices

Yes, we will have chunks of time where we sit around, melting into the couches and rotting our brains.  #dontjudge  

Toodling Around Town

Swimming / Rock Climbing – our local swimming joint also offer rock climbing (and daycamps on school holidays), so we’ll be taking advantage of that.  We currently have a membership, although they do offer inexpensive day passes.  Great way to burn some extra energy.

Library / Bookstore – These are a favorite during the summer.  Our local library offers free activities for all ages, plus computer banks, free wifi and of course zillions of books and movies to be checked out.  

Mall Wandering – This one is a bit dangerous (teen want to spend!) but if you can enforce limits on the cash hemorrhaging, there’s plenty of distraction to be had at a mall or shopping center.  

Bike Rides / Urban Trail – If the weather cooperates, we may hop on our bikes and take a ride.  There are seven of us, so we make a heartwarming sight pedaling down the road like so many wobbly ducks 🙂  If you look closely, you’ll see Mom (me) ALWAYS bringing up the rear, and occasionally hollering out “CAR!!!!!”  We find bike rides a nice way to work off some excess energy (ahem), wear them out, work on coordination and safety skills, and provide a “together activity” while limiting the actual interaction 😉  

Three Dollars at the Downtown Candy Shop – Have you ever explored your city’s historic/downtown shops?  Ours offers several adventures, depending on the ages of the kids, and how many times we’ve played this card.  If the weather cooperates, you can make it a nice little walking adventure.  With middle schoolers, we will likely spend a fair amount of time drooling over specialty clothing we can’t afford, and alternating between running down the sidewalk like a little kid, and looking around to see if any cute boys noticed us (inert eye roll).  

Also, we’ll have to pop in to the old fashioned candy shop that smells like sugar and overwhelms our senses.  Mom and Dad will set a spending limit, the kids will take a thousand lifetimes to decide, and then we’ll all sit around a teeny tiny soda-shop table and put ourselves into a sugar coma.  #memories

Christmas Money Spending Spree – It’s a bit early, and I’m conflicted about it, but we have more or less given up on choosing gifts for our kids at Christmas (and birthdays).  They’re kids who need control over their lives, and giving it to them creates more happiness and bonding in our family.  So they’ll each get a chunk of cold hard cash for Christmas, and we’ll all pile in to the van and head to the mall to blow it the next day.  

Last year was the first year doing this, and it was a ton of fun.  We wasted an entire day wandering from store to store, and back again to our favorites.  The kids made all their own decisions, with a bit of cautionary advice from Mom & Dad.  We practiced money management.  We made our own purchases and felt very grown up.  We people-watched.  We ate mall food, everyone choosing what they wanted.  We spent as much time agonizing over spending a quarter in the candy  machine, as we did over ridiculously expensive pants.  It was fun, and full of life lessons, and the kids are looking forward to it again this year.

Another thing we’re doing again is giving the kids a couple of $5 gift cards to places we like to go as a treat.  Ice cream, Starbucks, etc.  Another fun whole-family activity, where the control-needy get to make their own decisions 🙂

Semi-Local Day Trips

Local Day Hikes – If the weather is nice, there are lots of local hikes we can take.  Wilderness trail, Urban trails, historic landmarks.   We can choose the length and difficulty level of the hike, as well as how far we’re willing to drive to get there.  As always, we’ll pack a lunch and water bottles to keep it frugal.

One Park per Day – Have you ever made an ongoing adventure of visiting every single park in your area, one per day?  (It’s the homeschool Mom coming out, I know 🙂 )  The kids have enjoyed the variety, as well as rousing discussions about the pros and cons of each park.  Invariably, someone start the Ideal Dream Park list, and that keeps us occupied for a while.

The Best Fudge in TouristVille – About an hour away is a popular historic tourist town that we sometimes frequent, just to walk around the downtown shops and people-watch.  Maybe to take a hike.  We have a favorite fudge shop, which will be an experience a lot like the candy shop above.  

Every Kid in a (National) Park – This is a current US National Parks Program for 4th graders and their families.  We have a 4th grader thi year, and while we’ve not taken advantage of this program as much as I wanted to, it’s a great frugal option.   There are a couple of places nearby that qualify (so we wouldn’t have to drive far).  Might just do it!

Random Stuff & Crazy Ideas

Gigantic Poster Boards – Randomly, the hubs scored a couple dozen GIGANTIC piece of dicarded posterboard from work.  It’s in great shape, and we have a few artists among us.  No limits on what we can do with this stuff!  Good activity during read alouds, even if they ARE making door signs that say “STAY OUT OF MY ROOM” lol!

Christmas Movie-A-Day – When the kid were little, I wrapped up 24 holiday books and we had a great time taking turn choosing a “present” and unwrapping it to be read each evening in December.  They’re way too cool for that now, of course, but this Mama is resourceful.  If you go early, the library has tons of holiday movies geared toward every age.  Setting up a Move-A-Thon that lasts a week or two over break is easy.  Popcorn and hot chocolate are cheap.  Peaceful, distracted evenings after being together all day are PRICELESS. 

Free Lunch at Sam’s Club – This one has Dad written all over it.  One of Dad’s favorite time wasters is to take the kids to Sam’s club around meal time and wander the aisles, sniffing out all the sample kiosks.  Whole meals can be gleaned this way, according to Dad and his young followers, and it’s great fun.  Invariably, they come home with a list of “amazing” things that Mom now NEEEEEEEEDS to fit into the grocery budget, lol.

Pet Store – Another Dad specialty.  Works like this:  you go in to the pet store, walk around a bit and check out all the pets.  Then you pretend you might be interested in adopting a pet.  Then you pretend really hard so they let you go in the little visiting room and play with the puppy or snuggle the kitten.  Then after a while, you don’t take a pet but you thank them and leave for your next adventure.  Mom doesn’t approve of the deception.  But hanging around the pet store is a great time waster, and petting animal is proven to calm young folks with too much energy 🙂

Wrecking Stuff – Let’s just put it out there, shall we?  Kids like to smash, destroy, take apart and generally wreck stuff.  As much stuff as you’ll allow, right?  Just my kids?  OK 🙂  Well, I made a quick run to the thrift store the other day and picked up several small electronic appliances that had seen better days.  Every so often, when the urge to pick and pull apart and destroy gets too strong, I will bring something in and let them go at it.  This homeschool mama will call it a learning moment, and then we’ll clean it all up and do something else.  

If It Snows

Snow ice cream – We did this once when the kids were little, but I haven’t been organized enough to do it again since.  So far, we’re having a warm, dry winter, which is really weird, but if we do get a couple of big dumps, this should keep us occupied for a little while.  And it involves sugar, which is always a hit.

Sledding – I’ve been stockpiling cheap but strong sleds (love my thrift stores!) since last winter, since we destroyed our last ones.  When the sledding hill near our house opens up, we’ll be ready.  Great activity to wear them out, get some massive sensory input (if they can handle it), and freshen up grumpy attitudes.  Especially nice when somebody builds a fire in the firepit at the bottom of the sled run, and Mom brings hot chocolate 🙂

Calvin & Hobbes Snowman Challenge – We’ve been talking about this for a few years.  Now that they’re all older, we might just be able to pull it off.  All kinds of options for hilarity!

Shoveling for Money – We have a ridiculously long driveway, and even when Dad pulls out the big snowblower machine, there’s still lots of shoveling to be done when it snows.  And picking up rocks so they don’t ruin the snowblower.  Kids like money 🙂  (We’ve been known to pay for pulling weeds, sweeping the porch, even catching grasshoppers to feed the chickens.  Granted, a nickel per grasshopper isn’t much, but it occupies them and we like to think they’re learning valuable life lessons 🙂 )

Staying Sane

Sensory Regulation – We have a wide variety of sensory integration needs in our bunch.  Some are sensory avoidant, some are sensory seeking, some are both at the same time, which is super fun.  Their whole lives, Mom is always on the lookout for good sensory activity ideas, and always watching for those moments when some sensory intervention is needed.  School breaks without routine is prime time for this. 

Here are some things that have worked for us, and that I’ll be pulling out for this break:

  • Sensory boxes
  • Play dough, clay, moon sand (can be made with calming essential oils)
  • Finger painting, shaving cream play, water play
  • Body Sox
  • Creating blanket forts to block out overwhelming noise/lights/activity
  • swinging/rocking furniture
  • extra showers/baths, footsoaks
  • calming breathing exercises
  • clapping games/drumming on buckets (guide them to make it a regulating thing, not out of control noise)
  • kneading bread dough
  • shoveling snow counts here too, since it’s a LOT of prioproceptive input (heavy work).  It’s no surprise that my wiggliest kids are the ones who love to shovel.

Essential Oils & Nutrition – My kid do better when we don’t have a lot of sugar.  Or artificial colors, etc., for that matter.  So I allow it sometimes, but try to limit it.  And I’m always pushing protein.  Even so, my wildest ones crave sugar and simple carbs, so I’m just not going to have a lot of that around any more.  Makes more work for me, but it helps regulate their blood sugar (moods) and their energy levels.

We also use our doTERRA essential oils a lot.  I expect to be relying heavily on Balance, Serenity and other calming oils.  If you’re not familiar with doTERRA oils, poke around my blog a while, there’s lots of information here.  

Some of the way I use oils:

  • diffusing (even in the car)
  • roller bottles
  • add them to homemade play dough, sensory boxes, 
  • add them to baths, footsoaks, lotion (foot rub anyone?)

Keep the Routine – As much as possible that is.  Bedtime is still 8:00 for the under-13’s, and 9:00 for the teenagers.  They just plain need lots of sleep.  They’re happier people that way.  They will still have to clean up their own dinner dishes and put away their laundry (with help).  We will do Taco Tuesday at our favorite place.  This Christmas will look a lot like last Christmas.  Our New Year’s Eve shenanigans will be the same.  Even if our daily routines are off, the larger routines will be in tact, and that helps them because they know what to expect.  It matters a lot for our bunch.

Less is More; Playing it by Ear – Happy childhoods are filled with happiness.  If that needs to be in the form of LESS activity and LESS stuff, then better to embrace it.  After 15 years of trying to do everything, I think I’m finally ready to simplify. And be flexible enough to make decision on the fly, based on who needs what at that moment.  And be ok with it. 

I’ve said for years that some  kids need more “white space” in their lives.  We have a couple like that.  Hard to balance when the other kids need lots of activity and input.  But the longer we do this parenting thing, the better we get at it 😉

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