20 family outings on a budget before the kids go back
Katy McGuinness on using the last days of the summer to create some special memories
Most parents are ambivalent about the long summer holidays. One the one hand, they look forward to the break from routine - by June the tedium of making school lunches and driving children around to a relentless programme of after-school and weekend activities has taken its toll. Everyone is ready to kick back and enjoy the luxury of unscheduled time.
On the other hand, the novelty of having them all at home soon passes, and the summer acquires a tedium of its own, with too much time spent on screen and the enthusiasm for planning wholesome activities wearing thin. In families where there is no parent based at home, the summer can be stressful and expensive, with the constant juggling of camps with favours from grandparents, relations and friends.
One savvy working mother says that she always takes off the last few days of the school holidays and plans fun things to do with her children, "because those are the days that'll be fresh in their minds and that they'll be talking about when they go back to school. They're the ones they'll write about in their 'What I did this summer' exercise, and I don't want them saying that they spent them on the X-Box or with a minder".
Unfortunately, the last few days before the schools go back tend to have to be frugal ones, given that families will have shelled out for books and uniforms and there's likely to be little left in the kitty for extravagant excursions. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for days out with the children that won't break the bank. Pack a picnic to keep costs down.
The thrill of catching a fish is one that never palls, so this is a great activity for kids of any age from little ones up to teenagers. If you know anyone with a boat who can take you out mackerel fishing, seize the opportunity. Mackerel are easy to catch with a simple weighted line. Clean and cook them and you've got a free dinner. Otherwise, try one of the numerous stocked trout fishing lakes around the country, or borrow some rods and try your nearest sea-fishing beach or pier.
CAR BOOT SALE
This one should be self-financing, and may even make a profit. It should also give parents an indication as to whether they have any budding entrepreneurs in the house. Find out where your nearest car-boot sale is on and get the kids to de-clutter their rooms and assemble all their unwanted books, toys and clothes. Throw in your own bits and pieces, and decide together what to spend the money on, perhaps giving a percentage to charity.
Even the most outdoor-phobic of parents should be able to manage one night's camping. Borrow the gear, pack smores-makings, fleeces, insect repellent and a sense of humour and head for somewhere scenic, a camp-site or even just the back garden. They'll love you for it.
CRACK OF DAWN BREAKFAST IN THE WOODS
If you just can't face sleeping in a tent, this is the next best thing. They'll complain loudly, but get them up before dawn and head for the nearest woods or beach with a camping stove, a flask of tea, a frying pan and a couple of packets of bacon and sausages. White bread only, and don't forget the brown sauce and ketchup. They can always go back to bed when you get home.
A pass for unlimited travel on the DART for a day for two adults and up to four children costs €18.90. So bring a picnic, head to Greystones, do the cliff walk back to Bray, perhaps using the amusements as a bribe (camel derby, anyone?), and get the DART back to Howth, finishing up with a bag of chips on the pier.
There are plenty of adventure centres around the country, but some can work out quite expensive when you take into account the activities that are not included and the burger factor. Squirrel's Scramble at Kilruddery, near Bray, offers a "swinging through the trees" experience that has climbing, balancing, crawling and sliding with zip wires for children from five upwards, from €10 per family member. Bring a picnic and enjoy the beautiful gardens.
At the Airfield estate in Dundrum, Dublin, children can pet animals, see eggs being collected from the hens, watch the herd of Jersey cows being milked, see the gardeners at work and, after dusk, spot Soprano Pipistrelle bats, which are so small that they could sit on the end of your thumb. If you arrive after 4pm, admission prices are reduced by 50pc and there's still plenty to see.
CLIMB A MOUNTAIN (OR EVEN JUST A BIG HILL)
It's quite an achievement for a child to be able to say that they have climbed a mountain, so make sure that you get a photo of them at the summit. Near Dublin, the Sugar Loaf is a good bet.
Hit the hedgerows in search of blackberries and then come home and make jam. Or look for sloes and make sloe gin, for parental consumption only. This is a great time of year for mushroom hunting, too, but you need to be sure to have expert advice as to whether what you collect is safe to eat.
FAMILY CYCLE RIDE
Gather together enough bikes for everyone and head to a park or somewhere with a safe cycle track so that you don't have to worry about traffic. The Great Western Greenway in Mayo is both scenic and family friendly, but there are safe cycle routes all over the country.
Junior historians will enjoy the daily re-enactment of Padraig Pearse's oration at the graveside of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, which happens at 2.30pm each day and is free. A family ticket for the tour of the graveyard and museum costs €25, and includes €5 credit for genealogy research. Probably one for older children and particularly appealing to ghoulish teens.
Admission to The National Museum of Ireland is free. Have a look at www.museum.ie and see what might be of most interest, from mummies and stuffed animals to ancient Irish artefacts. Plenty of free activities at the various locations, including a six-word story competition - inspired by an object in the collection - at Turlough Park, to design challenges linked to the Eileen Gray exhibition at Collins Barracks. Heritage Week runs until August 31.
This weekend sees the return of the Ukulele Hooley to the People's Park in Dun Laoghaire. On Sunday, there's a free concert all day. The Farmers' Market is on at the same time, in case you don't fancy bringing a picnic, and Teddy's is just around the corner for an ice cream.
WALKING TOUR OF DUBLIN
For older children and teenagers, there are self-guided walking tours of Dublin by Pat Liddy free to download as podcasts from Visit Dublin. Instead of hitting a fast-food restaurant for burgers and chips, what about getting out of your comfort zone and hitting one of the great value Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese restaurants in the Dublin 1 area afterwards?
Children love Tayto Park, which charges €44 for a day ticket for a family of four. There are plenty of free activities for all ages, including arts and crafts, face-painting and special Birds of Prey presentations. There's also a petting farm, animal feeding, a great playground and the chance to meet Mr Tayto himself. Pony rides cost €3.
Aussie eco-naturalist Dale Treadwell is leading a bug walk in Powerscourt Gardens on Sunday. It costs €8.50 for adults and €5 for children. It's probably advisable that they love insects if you are going to sign up for this. Powerscourt Waterfall is also well worth a visit.
CLASS GET TOGETHER
Suggest that their class meets up for an afternoon at a local beach or playground before term starts. Doing this helps alleviate anxiety for children who are nervous about heading back to school after the summer holidays.
Not strictly a day out, but dinner has to be made anyway and there is no reason why supervised children can't take charge of it themselves - from planning and budgeting the menu, to making the shopping list, setting the table, cooking and serving. Use a theme - French, Mexican, or Caribbean for example - to help with inspiration for table decorations, music and non-alcoholic cocktails. Encourage everyone to dress in appropriate costume, and follow with a relevant movie.
The Strange Weather exhibition will appeal to older children interested in learning more about climate change and how it will affect them on an individual basis. Admission is free, with plenty of interactive material including the opportunity to bet against the weather and get a personalised weather forecast for the next 50 years.
BUTLER'S CHOCOLATE FACTORY
As a final summer blow out, and ideal for a bad-weather day, there are few excursions that will be as popular with your children as a trip to the Butler's Chocolate Factory in north Co Dublin. It's €13.50 per person, with a 5pc discount for online booking. It should be worth a few lie-ins come the new term.