Remember when summer nights were all about the adventure you could find outdoors? Parents relaxed on the porch while kids hunted fireflies. No one cared that everything on TV was a repeat. The best entertainment was out in the yard. And maybe it still is?
Before everyone gears up for the new school year, get your whole family together for some nocturnal fun—from traditional past-sunset fare like stargazing to repurposed-for-dark activities like a game of glow-in-the-dark basketball. And if you're feeling retro and just have to catch those fireflies? Go for it!
Here are 10 reasons to stay up, and out, late.
1. Night school: You don't want to meet up with night critters—unless you're a kid, of course. Introduce youngsters to lepidopterology, the study of moths and butterflies, with a "moth dessert," suggests Silvana Clark, author of Fun-Filled Parenting (Regal, 2010). (Don't worry: The dessert is for the moths, not made from them.) In a saucepan over medium heat, mix ½ cup sugar and 2 cups water, until sugar dissolves. Allow to cool. At dusk, have your kids use paintbrushes to apply the mixture to a tree. After dark, pass out flashlights for kids to shine on the area. "Moths will congregate there because they love the combination of sugar and light," Clark says. A bonus: While the kids are studying, moths will stay away from the grown-ups on the patio.
2. Ramble on: If you have a fire pit or can otherwise build a safe campfire, chances are your kids are expert marshmallow roasters. Make the experience even sweeter by gathering round and starting a song or story, taking turns adding a line or two. If someone in the family can strum a guitar, all the better.
3. Glow for gold: Hit a dollar store or party-supply store and stock up on glow sticks, bracelets, and necklaces, then adapt your favorite sports for a nighttime Olympics. Connect a few glow sticks to create a tossable ring; tuck a few bracelets in the holes of a Wiffle ball; arrange a series of necklaces on the ground for a bean-bag toss; string others around the rim of a basketball hoop. You can also play glow-in-the-dark freeze tag, with each player wearing a glow necklace and the tagger wearing several.
4. Clothes up: Nighttime crafting will keep kids occupied until bedtime. Buy plain black or white T-shirts and a supply of fluorescent or glow-in the-dark fabric paint or paint pens, then let the younger generation play fashion designer. The party can continue on another night when the kids wear their art on their sleeves.
5. Do a rain dance: If you don't have a backyard pool, a lawn sprinkler can be a lifesaver on a sticky night. Make it more appealing to older kids (who might deem sprinklers babyish) by using rope or ratchet straps to secure the hose and sprinkler unit overhead. "Tie the sprinkler to a thick horizontal tree branch or the upper platform of a swing set," Clark suggests. Pretend you're playing in a passing shower.
6. Milk it: Recycle your recycling by creating milk-jug luminarias—a great day-into-night project. To make: Cut the top off a clean, dry, gallon-size plastic milk jug. With your kids, decorate the outside with glow-in-the-dark paint or glued-on tissue paper for a stained-glass effect. Fill about a third of the jug with sand, then stick in tea light candles. Come nightfall, disperse outside, light, and enjoy.
7. Star party: "A lot of people think they can't see many stars unless they're deep in the country, away from the lights of cities and suburbs," says Andrew Fazekas, an astronomy educator in Montréal. "But actually, the fact that you can see fewer stars in most people's backyards makes stargazing easier for beginners." It's as though the background is edited, and you're left with easy-to-pick-out constellations and glowing planets. For navigation help, visit skymaps.com, which posts a free updated guide to the evening sky every month. Or download an inexpensive smartphone app like Star Walk or Sky Safari to access real-time interactive star maps. (And if you are able to find a dark spot, stay up late for the Perseid meteor shower, a breathtaking annual event that sends streaks of light across the entire night sky. It peaks around August 13.)
8. Rock Out: Darkness ups the challenge—and thrill—of a classic scavenger hunt. Before dusk, collect and clean smooth stones from your yard (or purchase large pebbles at a craft store), then have kids decorate the rocks with glow-in-the-dark paint. Once the rocks dry, tell the kids to cover their eyes while you scatter the stones in the yard. After sunset, the scavenging can begin.
9. Flash Mob! Arm any group of kids with flashlights, and you don't even have to suggest a game. "I like to tell my kids and their friends, 'Take these flashlights, go over there and talk for 10 minutes, and make up a game—go!'" Clark says. "Invariably, being put in charge prompts them to create some game with its own rules." Or update flashlight tag with colored bulbs or a piece of colored cellophane wrapped around the light and secured with a rubber band—it's like low-cost laser tag.
10. A toss-up: For overheated kids who enjoy the element of surprise, an after-dark balloon toss is the perfect game. Stand in pairs facing each other, with a supply of bright, water-filled balloons. Gently throw them back and forth, taking one step back each time. As the distance grows between players, the balloons start to look as though they're flying out of the shadows—which means they're much more likely to be missed and soak you!