Laura Mosall is a fifth grade teacher at Madeira Beach Fundamental School. She’s also the mother of three young boys who has come up with some great and cheap ways to entertain them this summer. We asked her to spell it out for us and offer her best tips.
We have been quarantining at home for more than 100 days. Aside from the necessary groceries and occasional runs to Lowe’s for materials to entertain ourselves with home improvements, we have tried to avoid others as much as possible.
We are very social beings and desperately miss our family and friends, but with older parents and so many unknowns about COVID-19, we’re just not willing to risk it. But we have three young boys who rise at the crack of dawn and are “bored” by 8 a.m., so we need stuff to do.
We have spent countless hours researching and planning activities that will get us out of the house and away from the endless lure of technology. Here are a few of our favorite socially distanced, fairly cheap (often free!) pandemic adventures.
Parks and preserves
We aren’t yet comfortable with our kiddos enjoying local playgrounds, especially with the feels-like temperatures of 100 degrees before 11 a.m. That means only shaded locations are worthwhile for us. Apply sunscreen at home, pack water and snacks, and bring bug spray.
Weedon Island Preserve: The lengthy boardwalk and paved trails in this St. Petersburg park are mostly shaded. Look for small crabs on the paths, lots of birds and critters in the water. The Education Center is currently closed, but you can hike to the observation tower or launch kayaks and canoes. Call ahead to rent from Sweetwater Kayaks at (727) 570-4844. Free. 800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg. weedonislandpreserve.org.
Kapok Park: This Clearwater park is right next to Cliff Stephens Park and Moccasin Lake Nature Park so you could definitely pack a lunch and make a day of exploring the area. There is a boardwalk that leads to a paved path, some cool trees to climb and plenty of open field area. Expect to see lots of birds and turtles. We also spotted a very active alligator. Free. 2950 Glen Oak Ave. N, Clearwater. prodenv.dep.state.fl.us/DslParks.
Wall Springs Park: Once a spa, this natural spring in Palm Harbor has a shaded boardwalk and paved path that lead to an observation tower with wide ramps all the way to the top (perfect for wheelchairs and strollers). There is historical information posted throughout, and although we didn’t visit it, there is a nice covered playground. Free. 3725 De Soto Blvd., Palm Harbor. pinellascounty.org/park/21_Wall_Springs.htm.
De Soto National Memorial: Bring a beach towel to this Bradenton park and trek through the shaded path to little access points for a chance to dip your toes in the Manatee River. There are several monuments to check out on your hike. Their visitor center is currently closed and they typically offer some interactive activities, so call for current information on what is open at (941) 792-0458. Free. 8300 De Soto Memorial Highway, Bradenton. nps.gov/deso/index.htm.
Robinson Preserve: This is not far from the De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, so we decided to visit on the same day. However, we found zero shade on the path we took. We wanted to check out the observation tower, but it was a long and very hot walk there and back. There is a large expansion project that started at the end of May, so this may be a place to revisit in the cooler months when the South Entrance is open again. Free. North Entrance: 1704 99th St. NW, Bradenton. mymanatee.org
Boyd Hill Nature Preserve: There is a boardwalk in this St. Petersburg nature preserve that is mostly shaded, as well as a trail that only has some shade. The education center is currently closed, but there are several birds of prey in outside cages. Expect to see turtles, tortoises and wild birds, too. Admission is normally $3 for adults, $1.50 for ages 3-16, but it was free when we went. 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg. stpeteparksrec.org/boydhillpreserve.
Hillsborough River State Park: This east Hillsborough state park has a very nice shaded boardwalk and elevated trails with some great views of the rapids of the Hillsborough River along the way. You can camp and fish there as well. $6 per car. 15402 U.S. 301 N, Thonotosassa. floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/hillsborough-river-state-park.
Lake Seminole Park: The paved trail is quite shaded and is wide enough for bicyclists to pass while walkers and runners can remain on the path. There are playgrounds and lots of shelters. Free. 10015 Park Blvd., Seminole. pinellascounty.org/park/08_Seminole.htm.
Lettuce Lake Park: This Tampa conservation park was one of our favorite parks to walk around. There is plenty of shade on the boardwalk, paved path and the shell trail. We saw quite a lot of wildlife and appreciated the landscape variety. $2 per car. 6920 E Fletcher Ave., Tampa. hillsboroughcounty.org/locations/lettuce-lake-conservation-park.
Brooker Creek Preserve: This Tarpon Springs park is very shaded with bathrooms about halfway through your hike. However, it was quite a drive from St. Petersburg, so we recommend either bringing a lunch or checking to see what is open for lunch at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, which you can hit on the way home, at spongedocks.net. Free. 3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs. brookercreekpreserve.org.
Sawgrass Lake Park: This St. Petersburg park has a mostly shaded boardwalk and marked trail that lead to an observation tower. There are picnic tables near the parking lot, but only one actual shelter and grill. Free. 7400 25th St. N, St. Petersburg. pinellascounty.org/park/16_Sawgrass.htm.
John Chesnut Sr. Park: This Palm Harbor park has a shaded boardwalk, paved paths and dirt trails. It also has two playgrounds, lots of shelters with grills and a dog park. Free. 2200 East Lake Road, Palm Harbor. pinellascounty.org/park/04_Chesnut.htm.
Eureka Springs Conservation Park: This botanical garden in Tampa has shaded boardwalks, little brooks and a greenhouse. $2 per car. 6400 Eureka Springs Road, Tampa. hillsboroughcounty.org/en/locations/eureka-springs-conservation-park.
Hammock Park: This disc golf park in Dunedin also boasts boardwalks and trails lush with wildlife. We spotted many birds, fish and even a swimming snake. Free. 1945 San Mateo Drive, Dunedin. hammockpark.org.
We try to go to the beach at least once a week. Just pay for parking, bring lots of sunscreen and get there early, especially if you’re trying to park in a main public access lot. There are smaller parking lots up and down Gulf Boulevard in Pinellas County that may not have the convenience of a shower or a restroom, but have fewer visitors.
In the handful of times we have been to the beach, we noticed people have started to crowd in just after 10 a.m., but everyone seems to keep their distance when setting up their home base. We tend to leave by noon to avoid the direct heat and the crowds. There’s almost always someone eager to take our waterfront sand spot and parking space.
We highly recommend investing in an easy setup beach tent, such as the Pacific Breeze Easy Setup Beach Tent, found on Amazon for $72.
These are some activities we’ve done while enjoying our air conditioning at home or venturing out into our own backyard:
Plant a garden: Pick some of your favorite fruits, veggies or spices and get planting. Early morning is a great time to avoid the direct heat and hopefully the mosquitoes.
Color eggs: Who said this is an activity that can only be done at Easter? A quick Google search will provide you with a variety of recipes to decorate your hard-boiled eggs, including natural dyes, shaving cream and the traditional food coloring and vinegar method.
Sidewalk chalk “stained glass”: Find a shaded spot and, using painter’s tape, block off different polygons to create a variety of spaces for kiddos to color in with sidewalk chalk. Remove the tape and the design is complete and gorgeous. A dollar-store spray bottle filled with water quickly destroys the art, but is another fun activity. Spraying water directly on the chalk pieces themselves and then coloring with them provides bolder hues that seem more like paint than chalk.
Hang a homemade swing: Using a small piece of plywood and some rope, you can whip up a swing to provide another outside activity. Premade swings can also be purchased from Amazon for under $20.
Neighborhood hunt: If you have a local Facebook page or a community center, create a quick advertisement to “go on a bear hunt” around the neighborhood. Participating families can put a stuffed teddy or even a picture of a bear in their windows so then families can “hunt” for them on neighborhood walks. It is guaranteed to bring a smile to any kiddo’s face. Even if you don’t have a coordinated hunt, try finding things that begin with each letter of the alphabet as you walk around a local park or even your own yard. It provides for good vocabulary building and discussion while spending time together.
Tent: Even if you’re not keen on camping in your own backyard, you can put up a tent with some foam puzzle pieces to make a cushy floor. That can provide a new “base” for outside play.
Puzzles: A staple for cheap, non-electronic fun, puzzles are great for building fine motor skills, problem solving and strategizing. (Do you complete the border first — or organize like-colored pieces?) Quarantine your most-frequented puzzles into a bag for a week and then try a doorstop exchange with a friend to give you some variety.
Water balloons: You can score 100 self-filling water balloons for just $7.99 from target.com. All you need is a hose. In less than a minute, you’ll have a laundry basket full of fun to help you cool off from the heat.
UP NEXT: Check in next week for Laura’s ideas for some drive-worthy attractions where you can still keep your distance.