This summer has been nothing compared to last year's record-long stretch of 100+ degrees days, but it's still officially August in Texas (and today was officially 104 degrees at 4:30 PM, or so said my car). Which basically means it's hotter than hell outside, which you may or may not know if you actually live here, because chances are you're indoors for most of the day rockin' the non-stop AC. It's a basic instinct, for sure, to move inside when the weather gets hostile, but it's not a great plan with a toddler. Not for season-long stretches, anyway. As much as I appreciate indoor climate control, the New Englander (and, frankly, the World Citizen) in me is also a little uncomfortable with the unsustainable nature of the Texan A/C habit (and its cousin, the car-transport fix); I rebel by turning ours off, opening our windows, and heading outside with el kiddo in the morning hours. I'm okay with being a little warm in the summer time! And I like the backdrop of outside sounds -- cicadas, wind-blown trees, birdsong -- to flow into our days and home.

Last year, the weather really did hit a too-hot spot, and we had cabin fever, for real. This year, the heat is bearable until about 11, when the sun beats down oppressively and it only makes sense (safety first) to head in for a light lunch and a long siesta (with the windows, unfortunately, closed). But before then, I make a point to run the boy around in the fresh (if sticky-hot) air, because littles are meant to run, swing and splash; I refuse to let mine stare at screens all day long. Last year, this meant he was literally drawing on our walls. This year, I know the enemy -- Texas heat -- and I've learned a few tricks for outsmarting it. My motto is I ain't afraid. Read on for our summer survival basics, toddler-style.

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I've discovered nothing tuckers a toddler out quite like water play. It also helps curb the heat, allowing us more time outside than we'd otherwise be able to handle. Kaspar's taking swim lessons once a week (which he LOVES) with the uber-zen South Austin mainstay, "Mr. Matt." His reputation preceded him, in our case, and we signed up as part of a group thing -- he'll take up to three kids per half-hour session; I'm glad we did! Mr. Matt has a magical little pool setup surrounded by sunflowers and chickens in his backyard. It's far more relaxing than any YMCA, and the kids respond well to the quiet setting and Mr. Matt's gentle pace. Kaspar looks forward to his lesson all week, and is far more confident and comfortable in the water than he was before... a good thing in a state where home pools are prevalent. (If you're local and you want to know more, shoot me an email... As far as I know Mr. Matt is without a website to link you to, but I'll pass along his contact information). During the rest of the week, we fill up a kiddie pool on our (shaded) front porch, go to city pools with friends, and hit up "splash pads" as often as we can.
Splash pads, for you unanointed out-of-towners, are like sprinklers on steroids: kid heaven. (See above, and below left.) Thank you, Austin, for peppering them throughout our city's parks. Below right please find another smart city-planning (or whatever local organizing body implements these kinds of ideas) move; an outdoor playground situated under a big, shade-creating tarp. We actually relocated to the playground in this picture after trying, that morning, for another, but discovered its equipment was scalding. Not a good time. But the shaded one, at the same time of day? Totally playable. If only every city playground were outfitted with a sun-tarp, then all of the sweet and  innocent little children could play outside at noon. (Ahem, city planner people, I'm talkin' to you.)
The park across from our neighborhood actually trumps the tarp ten-fold with its natural shady-tree cover. It's amazing what a difference the shade makes. I remember longing for foliage-sightings in New York, and coveting what trees I could see when the subway briefly emerged over-ground, or beyond the rooftops and construction looking out our apartment's kitchen window. Austin is in some ways far less visually appealing than New York, but it does have trees. They're beautiful, and they make it possible to play outside on otherwise indoor-only kinds of days.

Still, the summer does dictate that we head inside a lot, and keeping Kaspar occupied is a JOB ('school' starts back up for him again in T-minus three weeks). I took a lot of trips to Target last year -- the store's thermostat was set at 65 degrees, I swear -- and Kaspar was happy to ride around in the cart for as many pointless errands as I could conjure. This year, however, he's a lot bigger, and while he's still a great sport about actually-necessary shopping, he also appreciates being engaged and entertained on his own level (read: he's not down for mom's plans only anymore). I bit the bullet early in the season -- sensing I'd resort to it eventually -- and took him to an indoor inflatable jumpy gym place; it's three minutes away by car, and I braced myself for a summer full of frequent jumpy gym visits. Which would have sucked, because a) those places are germ factories, b) they're full of case studies in negligent parenting, and c) the one near us is extra ghetto, a badly-lit warehouse that you enter from the back, stepping over litter outside the door and strewn, broken toys in the section for "small children" (which is teeming with unattended large children cracked out on sugar) within. Luckily, Kaspar wasn't impressed. He couldn't really get his balance on the big blow-up slides, what with the cracked-out big kids, and the toys were otherwise pretty lame. He put in a good hour of checking the place out, but never requested a return-trip, and I haven't suggested one.

We've gotten our indoor kicks elsewhere instead, returning to the children's museum, and making weekly stops at the library. Kaspar adores reading, and we stock up on books ranging in subject matter from sharks to Latin American folktales. We also get CDs and DVDs. When we get home, we hang out on the front porch and look over the loot like kids who've just gone trick-or-treating. We blast the neighborhood with Baby Baluga and other children's songs (or, the White Stripes...) and throw ourselves a dance party. Thus, library visits serve not only to entertain us (in luscious, like-you-mean-it A/C) for entire afternoons while we curate our stash of new treasures, but they provide hours of (educational!) entertainment in the following days. The library, I should add, is also free... which multiple trips to Target are, invariably, not. Libraries are underrated.

Kaspar's Thomas the Train obsession persists, and his attention span has matured to the point where, given the opportunity, he'd sit occupied for an hour in front of the TV. In fact, he gets the opportunity each day at six in the morning (he can drag one of us to the couch, but he can't make us keep our eyes open, damnit). But not -- I am determined! -- during the day.  If I lapse on that and let him at a 4 pm episode,  I hear a lot of Thomas requests -- and general whining -- for days afterward. But if I'm consistent, Kaspar finds ways to occupy himself. This is rewarding for both of us, for obvious reasons.

I well remember wondering, when he was six months old or so, how I was supposed to do anything when also parenting. Showering, cooking meals -- these things took forever (or were chronically delayed) as I was constantly interrupted or diverted by my baby's needs. I learned to let go of my own expectations of when things would get done, and also to work late into the night (boo, hiss). I also, when we finally dove in, took heart in the beauty of child care; when Kaspar's in school, I can take care of my own stuff. That means that my attention is more focused with him when he comes home. Of course, we're temporarily back on the full-time kiddo care clock, so II extra-appreciate this fun new phase. Kaspar will now play happily on the living room floor while I cook (or whatever), glancing over the half-wall separating the kitchen and living room now and then to check on him, or chat. I credit his Montessori school with some of this independent-play momentum, and think he's also just reached a new developmental stage. And I know from what little "experimentation" I've done around this that TV kills the natural rhythm and makes Kaspar clingy and demanding when I need to do something besides entertain him. So although TV is a tempting (and, honestly, occasionally useful) quick fix, I try to use it sparingly. We're all more autonomous for it. And there's plenty of other fun to be found indoors.

Today, for example, we made play dough (I used this Kaspar-friendly, wheat-free recipe). Aaron taught Kaspar how to roll it into balls, and he made "snow men" for the next hour while I sat at a nearby counter and worked. I plan to make new colors of dough for the next several days in order to keep the interest level high; the dough stores perfectly in plastic baggies or air-tight containers (I've got it in Pyrex), so Kaspar can accumulate his own little stash within easy reach, and return to it at his whims. I'm keeping an eye out for other creative play ideas that can store similarly (kind of like this-- brilliant!), allowing for on-the-spot diversions when I need them most. (Normally, if I even make a motion toward my computer, it's all over; Kaspar is highly opposed to my doing work in his company. Given how well I know he can entertain himself, this gets a little annoying. But the play dough experience is helping me to think outside the box).
We're leaving for the East Coast for almost two weeks on Saturday; I hear it's been hot there, too, but "hot" is a relative term. I'm not worried about it. We're looking forward to the cool, breathable air, and to the change of pace. I'm hoping to take some day trips to New Hampshire's small, kitschy coastline, and I can't wait to see all of our New York City friends when we head back to Brooklyn for a visit. When we return, it'll be almost September -- still summer in Texas (swim lessons continue through the end of October), but past the worst of it. I'm proud of us -- we've played our way through this summer like freakin' pros -- but I'm also really ready for the fall. Kaspar will be back in school, I'll (finally) have a moment to catch my breath between big work projects, and the days will be cool enough to keep the windows down past noon.

How do you keep your kids occupied during the summer? What are your favorite destinations? How do you keep your crew happy and cool?
01/23/2014 08:31

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