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Summer vacation and kids: How to be a rock star parent while winging it

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Summer vacation. Two perfectly lovely words, until they are followed by “starts in one week!”  Then, the realization that you will soon be on Cruise Director duty for three sweltering months can cause parental heart palpitations. 

Maybe you had every intention of signing your child up for the fabulous BookPeople camps, back when registration opened in November. Perhaps you had vague ideas of a family vacation but have not had time to set the itinerary.  Or could it be that you just haven’t given it much thought because, well, didn’t this school year just start? How on earth can it be over already?

 Enriching opportunities are around every corner in Austin, making fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants parenting both possible and rewarding. 

Fortunately, we live in a city with options. If you have not yet planned every minute of summer vacation, you’ll still be okay. Enriching opportunities are around every corner in Austin, making fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants parenting both possible and rewarding.

If you find yourself in the boat of unpreparedness, take heart! There are Austin adventures aplenty to pull out of your hat on a hot summer day, many of them educational.

Here is your subject-by-subject guide to winging it this summer with impromptu family field trips, helping you to come out looking like the rock star parent you are.

Art

Austin’s artistic community is vibrant and thriving, with numerous (air-conditioned!) galleries just waiting to be explored. The Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas at Austin campus is free every Thursday (admission for ages 12 and under is always free) and parents can take advantage of special Summer Family Tours. For added fun, plan an art scavenger hunt, where you track down predetermined paintings and sculptures in the Museum.

For an outdoor adventure, head to the beautiful grounds of the AMOA-Arthouse property Laguna Gloria for free docent-led tours at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Then, head over to the neighboring Mayfield Park and Nature Preserve. Bring along art supplies and encourage your child to draw or paint the resident peafowl.

Music

Take advantage of living in the Live Music Capital of the World. From Unplugged at the Grove to Blues on the Green to live music on the patio at Central Market, there is never a shortage of free family friendly concerts to enjoy. If you have younger children, let them get their groove on at the weekly Ruta Maya kids’ shows. These Sunday gigs encourage little bits to dance the morning away, while parents wake up slowly with a cup of Joe.

Also not to be missed is Children’s Day Art Park, on Wednesday mornings in Symphony Square. Hosted by The Austin Symphony, this festive family series boasts an instrument petting zoo, balloons, bubbles, clowns, storytellers, face painting, crafts and live music — all for the bargain price of 50¢ per child. 

Theatre

For free entertainment, you can’t beat the Zilker Summer Musicals at the Beverly Sheffield Hillside Theater in Zilker Park. This summer, the hill will come alive with The Sound of Music, from July 6 to Aug. 11. Bring a blanket or low chairs and a picnic, to enjoy an evening of professional quality theatre under the stars.

If daytime events work better with your schedule, Austin Summer Musical for Children will present Alice in Wonderland for free, Aug. 4 – 12. Be sure to arrive early as tickets are distributed on a first come, first served basis before the show, and the Boyd Vance Theatre does fill up quickly. 

For interactive children’s theater, give Tales of Merrie England a try. This creative family show, with acclaimed storyteller Bernadette Nason, will be at Scottish Rite Theater on June 9 and 10. Kids also love the improvised drama of Move Your Tale’s What’s the Story Steve? (every Saturday at 10 a.m.) and Flying Theater Machine’s Scavenger Hunt (Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 23). 

Improv theatre, where young audience members determine the direction of the story and often participate in bringing it to life, is always unpredictable and generally quite goofy. For older kids, Move Your Tale offers pay-what-you-wish Teen Shows and Improv Jams.

Science

There are more than 20 local museums you can visit for free and several of them will teach you a think or two about science. Check out fossils at Texas Memorial Museum or let your young Eco Detective dig for dino bones at the Austin Science & Nature Center. You can also visit the Hartman Prehistoric Garden, in the Zilker Botanical Garden, for just a few dollars. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, head out to see the life-size dinosaur replicas at The Dinosaur Park in Cedar Creek.

For hands-on Science, try the Austin Children’s Museum, which is free on Sundays, from 4 – 5 p.m., or anytime by request, through the Museum’s open door policy.  Community Nights are on Wednesday evenings, from 5 – 8 p.m., where admission is a recommended donation of $1.

Budding botanists and entomologists will enjoy exploring some of Austin’s glorious natural areas. Kids can catch minnows at McKinney Falls State Park, take a dip in Krause Springs, or enjoy a hike at Hamilton Pool Preserve.  Wade in Bull Creek, explore the Barton Greenbelt, or dive into Barton Springs Pool. All of those spots have natural water, to offer young scientists a cool reprieve from the Texas sun.

History

Start at the state Capitol and venture out into the city beyond, learning about the Austin of yesteryear as you go. The city offers free guided walking tours, which will teach participants of all ages about the history of our fair city and state.

If you’d prefer to tour at your own pace, stop by the Austin Visitor Center on 6th Street and pick up brochures on historic walking tours of O. Henry Trail and Texas State Cemetery. Self-led tours of the Capitol building will teach kids about our state government and a visit to the neighboring Capitol Visitors Center provides more opportunities for learning. 

On the first and third Thursday of each month at 9:30 a.m., The French Legation Museum hosts The Young Ambassadors’ Club story time. Kids may also enjoy visiting The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum exhibits, which you can do for free on the first Saturday of each month, from 2 - 6 p.m. 

Library

Don’t underestimate the awesomeness of Austin area public libraries. They pull out all the stops during summer months, offering free concerts, movies, puppet shows, plays and more. Be sure to check the schedules of your local branches and break up the summer days with some indoor entertainment. Summer reading programs can also offer some great incentives.

Recess

Take a break from all the educational experiences and just let the kids run and play. Parks with splash pads are ideal for the heat of summer, but my children also love the playground at Mueller Lake Park, the wooden fort playgrounds in Georgetown and San Marcos, and the brand new Play for All Abilities Park in Round Rock. They also have a grand time running around the huge outdoor J. Lorraine Ghost Town in Manor.

If you find yourself in need of a little adult recess time, the city of Austin offers free drop-in childcare for children ages 6 to 12, through the Summer Playground Program. This will give you a chance to regroup before diving back into the next outing. 

In no time at all you may find yourself wondering how it could possibly be time to get the kids ready for school, when summer vacation just began.

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