All you need is a good idea - and a little bit of cunning

Father-of-four David Randall has learnt the hard way how to enjoy the school holidays as much as the kids. Here, he shares some sanity-saving tips

We don't want to worry you unduly, but very shortly, if your children are at state school, they will be both on holiday and on your hands for six-and-a-half weeks. Or, to be more precise - and alarming - a total of 44 days, a full eighth of the year. They will be yours to occupy for 1,056 hours - the equivalent of 2,112 episodes of EastEnders or more than 6,000 of Teletubbies. Thus, the frightening prospect of many parentis becoming loco.

But reassurance is at hand, and closer than you think. First, the little darlings sleep a good deal of the time (and, in the case of the not so little ones, for rather longer than you might credit).

And second, you now have in your grasp pages of ideas of how to occupy them, with more sanity-savers to come in seven days. Today's issue is devoted to days out; next week's to summer family events.

These pages are brought to you by a team that has between them 23 children, 12 nephews, and 14 nieces. And it falls to me, the owner of the largest and most grown-up collection of junior funsters, to open proceedings with a few tentative words of advice, each the product of many years' hewing at the very coal-face of child entertainment. We hope they are of some use in the 63,360 minutes that must pass before you can return your little friends to the safe custody of the teaching community.

The best day-trips in life are free

Simple pleasures invariably beat those that require a 140-mile round trip, £67 family ticket, five tantrums, and a bad attack of junior biliousness at 55ft on the MegaCyclops Ride. Go for the day-out classics: beachcombing, blackberrying, stream damming, Pooh sticks, picnics, fishing for tiddlers, camp-in-the-woods building etc. In the years to come, it will be those days, and not the visit to WallyWorld, they will remember.

Tourist information centres are one of the great glories of Britain

Use them. You will be astounded how, even in your own area, there is so much more going on than you ever imagined. And, unlike shops, they are staffed by intelligent, helpful human beings who know their stuff.

Get a new family toy or game for the holidays

It might be a back-garden football net, or badminton set, or, for those fortunate to

have children of a studious bent, a microscope. It might be a video camera, tennis rackets all round, bikes, share of a pony, sand pit, inflatable boat, kite, or tent. But whatever it is, don't monopolise it. Let the kids have a go sometimes.

In proposing a particular day out to the children, avoid the word "educational"

It may appeal to you that this museum will help their studies, but it is unlikely to provoke the same thrill in them. And here is another tip: drop the competitive parent bit for a few weeks. The Follington-Smythes down the road may have taken their children on a tour of Umbrian churches for two weeks, and followed that up by enrolling them in language classes, but, trust me, they are storing up psychological trouble in later years.

Never underestimate the efficacy of bribery

There are plenty of household chores even the smallest child can tackle, the reward for which will be a trip, or spending money for one already arranged. Sensitive parents will draw the line at sending the kiddies up the chimney, but room-tidying, fridge-defrosting etc can be achieved by all but the tiniest of hands.

Consider leaving the car behind

Radical, I know, but to the child driven everywhere, a long-distance train or coach ride can be an adventure in itself. Rail and bus companies offer family travel deals, and advertisements by National Rail boast that four can go for the price of two, thus saving, say, £39.20 on a quartet's jaunt from London to Eastbourne. Full details at www.daysoutguide.co.uk.

Get some company

Days out with other families have a special allure - your children have playmates different to their semi-tolerated younger brother or sister. They will have an unfamiliar adult voice nagging them to be careful, and you have someone with whom to share the supervision - and mind your kids while you sneak off to the pub or that little second-hand bookshop you spotted.

Organise fanciful treasure hunts during days out

On a visit to Corfe Castle many years ago, my father told us that when he last visited the place, as a child in the 1920s, he hid an old tin containing two sixpences on a stone ledge. My brother and I, swallowing this story, looked high and low, and eventually, and triumphantly, found it. My father feigned astonishment, just, presumably, as he had feigned an excuse to disappear and secrete the tin not 10 or so minutes before. We fell for it, he later told me he fell for it when his father did it, and my four sons in due course fell for it.

Do some trips for yourself

Being selfish will help to preserve your sanity. There is invariably a good picnic spot or attraction near that specialist nursery you have always wanted to visit, and it is amazing how often children fall for the "Oh, well I never, here's Simpkins the herb growers. I'll just pull in for a minute" routine. Don't, however, push your luck. Few children find a day in the ceramics section of the V&A fully satisfying.

Launch an Anti-Whining Incentive Scheme

On days out, start every child with a sum of money to be awarded at the end. Deduct a proportion of it for every whine, tantrum, or protruding bottom lip. Deduct all of it for any sudden disappearing acts. After all, however tiresome they can be, they suddenly become very precious when inexplicably out of view.

Obey the first law of family travel

On the road, the non-driving adult should act as in-car entertainments officer. This means, on longer trips, being DJ (everyone gets to pick a CD or tape in turn), insisting on frequent stops (where unruly back-seat passengers should change places), and, above all, organising games. "Spot Someone Wearing A Silly Hat" is a good one, especially fun if the boisterous players shriek 'Silly hat!!" when you are at traffic lights with the windows down. So, too, is pub cricket (inn signs that feature legs, eg "The Red Lion", score runs per leg; those without count as wickets. Detours in search of a pub called "The Three Millipedes" are not allowed.

On day trips, pack some elementary sports equipment

Even the most prosaic picnic spot ("But it's boring, Mum. It's just a load of grass.") can be brought to life by a game of "Land Our Frisbee in That Other Family's Wicker Hamper". Balls, bats, rackets, etc should accompany you everywhere. But not bows and arrows.

Take plenty of pictures

Still or moving, in focus or out - it doesn't matter. What does is capturing the moments. As my father, no mean funster himself (and still giving magic shows in his late 70s), once said when a colleague was appalled at the reckless abandon with which he spent money on family holidays: "It's not spending. It's investing. Investing in memories." And he was right.

LET YOUR FINGERS DO THE PLANNING

A little research before the holidays can save you weeks racking your brains for ideas. In just a quarter of an hour trawling the internet you can find new ideas for summer fun wherever you live in Britain, be it Chester, Leicester or Cirencester.

The National Trust is geared up for summer. Its website offers days out up and down the country, with dates and contacts. These are priced reasonably and often included in the usual NT admission, so with a family subscription, NT events are very cost-effective. If you're travelling from Chester, you could drop in to a "Boredom Buster" Wild Weaving session at Quarry Bank Mill. The Hungry Caterpillar Trail at Calke Abbey, within striking distance of Leicester, is billed as suitable for "wriggly children aged two to six and their grown-ups". While Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire offers As Far As I Can Sea!, a new NT theatre show for children and families which uses drama, dance, live music and puppetry to bring to life magical worlds, characters, animals and ships. For more details go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Britain's 47 wildlife trusts have plenty to offer at their collaborative site, www.wildlifetrusts.org. Click on "events" to find details of butterfly walks, bat and glow-worm hunts and the like: if you're feeling energetic, you could even volunteer to help at your nearest reserve.

For museums and galleries, you can't do better than www.24hourmuseum.org.uk, a sparkling site which features an area for children, www.show.me.uk. Look here for everything from Roman gladiators (with real fights!) in Chester to old buses in Leicester and Victorian cabinets of curiosities in Cirencester.

The official website of the British Tourist Authority, www.visitbritain.com, is comprehensive, though its sheer size and scope means that it takes some patience to navigate. Here you'll find a listing of those stalwarts of days out, the Tourist Information Centres: all 560 are listed under the "practical information" button.

Commercially run "what's on" sites seem to spring up and vanish at a rate of knots and their content is variable: many are out of date or have broken links.

Among those that worked when we checked are www.daysoutuk.com, which has offers and vouchers for days out on a budget, and www.allkids .co.uk, with a helpful directory under the "days out" button.

The freshly designed www.daysout.com site is attractive and user-friendly. This site makes a particular point of flagging up attractions that can be accessed by visitors with special needs. The site is still under construction, so as yet there isn't a huge range of suggestions, but this is one to watch.

Two of the best current sites are www.sightseeing.co.uk and www.wizziwiz .co.uk. Sightseeing.co.uk's efficient location finder offers a whacking range, from Beeston Castle in Cheshire to the Stapleford Miniature Railway in Leicestershire and Prinknash Bird Park in Gloucestershire. All distances from your start point are clearly indicated, as are contact details. The www.wizziwiz.co.uk site specialises in activities for children and includes clubs, sports and activities, with plenty of summer specials from music-making in Chester to working farms near Leicester and holiday play-schemes in Cirencester.

But if you're only going to bookmark a single site, the one that stands out is www.localtoday.co.uk. It offers a huge range of activities, all clearly marked with the distance from your start point. From Leicester, it offers 169 options, ranging from Kenilworth and Althrop to pre-school swimming lessons, from Chester there are 43 possibilities within a 30-mile radius and from Cirencester there are 83. You can search using town or postcode and it's quick, clear and genuinely tempting: this is the one that makes you want to run to find the car keys.

By Hester Lacey

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