For many people, the first big party of the summer season is July 4. From backyard BBQs to beach trips, there are many ways to enjoy the holiday. Your child may be too young to understand the history behind Independence Day, but there is no age requirement for helping create a fun family tradition. Here are some helpful tips for a fun and safe Independence Day.
Make It a Learning Experience
Head to the library or local bookstore and pick up a children’s book about July 4. There are a number of engaging books for small children, including some that use animals to tell the story. Marisa Conner, coordinator of Youth Services for Baltimore County Public Libraries in Maryland, recommends reading a book about the holiday before and after the celebration to make the experience more tangible for children. "Whenever you link a book to what’s happening in your community and culture, it brings the event to life," Conner says. "If you are going to a 4th of July parade, then read a book about parades before and after you go. Reading about the event makes it more real for them."
Throw a Birthday Party for America
Although your child may be too young to understand the concept of Independence Day and the history behind it, she probably understands what a birthday is and what it means to be born. Conner suggests throwing a birthday party for America, complete with red, white and blue cupcakes or cookies, patriotic music and games. You can do it at home or check to see if your local library will provide a similar event during a preschool story time. Turn up some marching band music and teach your child how to march.
Make It an Art Project
Go to your crafts store and let your kids pick out red, white and blue items. You can make sparkly hats or headbands to wear, decorations for the BBQ, whatever your child’s imagination chooses. You can even make your own t-shirts with red, white and blue stamps or puffy paint. There are numerous websites with great ideas for art projects celebrating the holiday. Teach your child about eagles, flags and other symbols of the United States.
Join a Parade
While you’re making decorations, help your child decorate his or her bike, wagon or even stroller for a neighborhood parade. If your neighborhood does not host one, find one nearby and join the walk, which often includes a local fire company truck for the firetruck-obsessed children in your group. Your kids will not only have fun but also get exercise at the same time.
See the Lights
The 4th isn’t really the 4th without fireworks, but little ones who have early bedtimes can make that tricky. Consider making the 4th of July an exception for a later bedtime, even bringing the kids to the display in their pajamas so they can crash on the drive home.
If you are worried your child will be frightened by the loud noises of the display, talk to him about the sounds and images beforehand, or even check out some videos on YouTube. Just keep in mind that the bright lights and big bangs are all part of the excitement. "You can’t help loving fireworks. They are scary and loud and they rock your world as a kid. Even as a parent they are thunderous and amazing, and we love to see our kids get a thrill," says Sheri Wallace, editor of Road Trips for Families, an online travel magazine that rates the top 10 U.S. fireworks displays each year.
If you are traveling a distance to see fireworks, Wallace recommends finding a hotel that is close to the action or at least provides good parking so your children don’t have to walk too far after the show. Beware of large crowds that can lead to heavy traffic as you leave, which may lead to some cranky children.
Light Up the Sky Safely
The National Council on Fireworks Safety (NCFS), a Washington, DC-based organization created to educate the public on using consumer fireworks safely and responsibly, urges people to use common sense when operating a fireworks display. "You should only use consumer fireworks, not professional ones, and use them responsibly," Ralph Apel, spokesperson for NCFS, says. "M-80s are dangerous explosives. They are not fireworks."
Above all, Apel recommends that every family who lives in a state where fireworks are allowed pick one designated shooter for their fireworks display. That person can enjoy the party but should not consume alcohol before setting off the display. "The designated shooter has time to decide which fireworks to shoot, where to send them. He can read the labels and warnings, as well as the performance descriptions," Apel says. He says children should be at least 12 years old to hold a sparkler, and parental instruction is key in all fireworks safety.
Take a Road Trip
"The 4th of July is the perfect opportunity to hone your road trip skills and catch the bug of the open road," Wallace says. Take advantage of the long weekend and head for the beach, mountains, campground or even the city. It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you go together. Wallace just encourages families to leave the DVD player at home, but pack some favorite toys and games for young children who bore easily.
Whether you hit the road or keep it small in your own backyard, the 4th of July is a guaranteed good time for children and adults alike. It’s a time to reflect on what it means to be an American and to enjoy what it means to be part of a family celebration. "If you go small and hometown and just wave a flag, march in a parade, eat fudge and sing patriotic songs, your kids will love it," Wallace says. "If you look back, it’s easy to remember what you did on the 4th as a kid. Those are the memories we’re making with our kids."
Laura Lewis Brown caught the writing bug as soon as she could hold a pen. For several years, she wrote a national online column on relationships, and now teaches writing as an adjunct professor. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and three young children, who give her a lot of material for her blog, EarlyMorningMom.com. By Laura Lewis Brown