Vacations with kids: the 'stay-cation'

Staying home can give kids and parents time to unplug and take in the sights close to home.

Alexandra Marks
Havin' fun: James Marks was happy not to go away for spring break. Instead, he enjoyed relaxing at home, tossing a football in his backyard, and having friends over to play.

Ah, summer vacation! With gas prices pushing $4 a gallon and the once-friendly skies full of congestion and delays, many folks may be thinking twice about what to do during those few precious weeks.

My nephew, James Marks, would like to offer an idea: a stay-cation. That's right, a vacation where you stay right at home. James first heard the word from his third-grade teacher, and it has appeared in the occasional travel column over the past year or so. But the idea was vague. So James would like to clarify just what constitutes a stay-cation. And, with the help of a travel expert, explain to parents everywhere why a stay-cation can be as educational and character-building as, say, a rather pricier trip to the Louvre.

First, James would like to start with the obvious.

"On a stay-cation you get to sleep as late as you want," he says after his aunt wakes him up at 8 a.m. on a Friday of his spring break. "Like for me, this is really late."

Another benefit is breakfast. His mother, who always insists on whole grains and no sugary cereals, allows James and his brother a sweet treat on stay-cation: "Cap'n Crunch" – albeit with organic milk.

"Sweet," says James, pouring himself a bowl. Then there's just hanging around the yard, pitching baseballs, practicing batting, and knocking around with a basketball.

"And then you can have your friends over," he says.

Indeed, his friend Will does come over. They have a toy-sword fight, then head to the woods, where they start to cut a path to another friend's house but get diverted by the discovery of a cave in some rocks. And all of this before 10:30 in the morning.

"Between the baseball and the soccer and one kid doing this and the other that, [children] are so scheduled it's like they never get to stop," says Donna Simpson, the executive director of Connecticut's Eastern Regional Tourism District. "When they get a chance to unschedule, unplug, they're just like us."

When her granddaughter, who's in the first grade, recently asked her what she used to like to do when she wasn't in school, Ms. Simpson told her that she liked to lie "on the hill and watch the clouds in front of our house.

"And [my granddaughter] said, 'That's what you did?' It was like she couldn't fathom that that was something really fun that I really loved to do," says Simpson.

Another benefit to a stay-cation, according to James's older brother, Owen, is the opportunity to take minivacations close to home. Owen spent one morning of his recent stay-cation sanding down the "dings" on the bottom of his surfboard. His ideal day: "Go to Rhode Island to surf," he says. That's just over an hour away from their house in Guilford.

With gas prices so high, many state tourism boards are worried that visitors from far off may be hesitant to make that 12-hour drive to another state. So many, like Connecticut's Eastern Regional Tourism District, are now focusing on reminding their own residents about the museums, historic sites, and fun things to do close to home. Connecticut's shoreline has Mystic Seaport, an aquarium, pick-your-own fruit operations, and even a bison farm.

"Gas prices are a bit scary, and clearly they are going to make people really think about what to do this summer," says Simpson. "We're hoping that because we're so strategically placed between New York and Boston that people will think of us as a different place to go without having to drive that far."

Such short, educational trips can help build character, according to Simpson, and create wonderful memories.

But James would like to remind parents of the most important reason for a stay-cation: "It's just fun," he says.

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