Maddy Goeden was thinking about the pandemic summer stretching ahead and missing her family cabin on Lake Superior. It’s a special place, with a sauna that she calls its “social and spiritual center.”
The Minneapolis pediatrician realized her family’s annual cabin gathering wasn’t likely to take place this year. But she had an idea: Why not bring the cabin to her city backyard, if only for a night?
“I needed to adapt one of my typical summer rituals to our new reality,” she said.
So she rented a tent sauna, wood burning stove and small plunge pool from Stokeyard Outfitters, the company behind Minneapolis’ mobile Sauna Village. One night in May, after the kids had gone to bed, Goeden and her husband, Matthew, spent the evening in the backyard — heating up in the tent, and then cooling off with a dunk in the icy pool, over and over again.
“I slept better than I have in months,” said Goeden, who is now hoping to build a permanent sauna.
With trips canceled, family gatherings postponed and many playgrounds, beaches, pools and splash pads closed or placed off limits by parents, Minnesotans like Goeden are figuring out how to bring summer fun to the backyard.
Setting up tents on their lawns, area Girl Scouts and other groups are sharing images of flickering campfires over Zoom, creating new versions of traditional summer activities like campouts. And staycation purchases — from trampolines, bouncy houses and inflatable water parks to hot tubs and saunas — are spiking. Many of the most popular items are already sold out at local stores or out of stock online.
“Swing sets have been through the roof, trampolines have been very popular,” said Tom Giles, who owns Rainbow Play Systems stores in Bloomington, St. Cloud and Sioux Falls, S.D. Overall, sales are about double what they usually are at this time of year, he said.
While some families are shelling out thousands for a tricked-out swing set, others are simply springing for $20 kiddie pools or fixing up what they have.
It doesn’t take much outdoor space or a major purchase to make your backyard more of a fun destination, said the Twin Cities-based host of HGTV’s “Stay or Sell,” Heather Fox. But your backyard deserves an investment of time, she said.
“Make it a space that you actually want to spend time in, because we’re going to be there for the rest of the summer and likely into the fall,” said Fox. “Something as simple as buying outdoor string lights and figuring out how you can rig them up, just having that little bit of ambience.”
In her Edina backyard, Fox and her husband repurposed a shed and turned it into a “brother cave” for their two boys, who are 6 and 8. “We took everything out, and they helped. We painted it and we added power,” she said. They brought in some furniture that had been in storage and fixed up the door.
“Now this is their space and they’re out there often,” she said. “With all this family time, we are together 24/7. Our house is quiet for at least a little while, while they’re out there playing, thinking that it’s the best thing ever. So it’s a win-win.”
The couple also decided to spring for a backyard amenity they had been eyeing for a long time, Fox said — a “modern and sleek looking” hot tub.
Clubhouses and campouts
As her daughter CC’s fifth birthday approached, the thought of providing fun without other kids around was daunting for Joy Summers, who usually throws a neighborhood party, complete with a scavenger hunt.
“There was nothing to do — all day,” said Summers, who lives in St. Paul and is the editor of Eater Twin Cities. “In a moment of what can only be described as a mental break, I pulled up Target’s website and saw that there was one bounce house in stock in the Twin Cities.”
Once purchased and picked up, it fit in their “postage-stamp”-sized Cathedral Hill backyard, and has turned out to be a “wonderful investment,” she said.
“These past few months have been a lot of indoors, in front of screens,” Summers said. “Remote learning has been really hard on my kids, and I was so relieved to have a reason to get her outside. She loves it. When we blow it up, she and her brother will bounce and hang out in there. Mostly, she just likes to bring all her dolls and blankets in there and treat it like a clubhouse.”
Cindy Kerr’s daughter Alyssa had planned to spend a recent weekend at a Girl Scout lodge with her troop. But after it was canceled due to COVID-19, the troop regrouped and did a “virtual camping adventure” from their individual backyards.
Alyssa, 10, spent the entire night in her St. Paul backyard. The scouts spent about 40 minutes chatting over Zoom and showing each other their outdoor sleeping setups.
Kerr’s daughter ended up roasting marshmallows and sandwiching them between “Thanks-a-lot” Girl Scout Cookies. Both her mom and brother joined her in the tent, but their dad slept in the house.
“Both of my kids said it was the best night,” said Kerr. “I realized it was a great night, that I think will become a lasting memory they will talk about years from now.”
Alyssa even managed to earn a new patch — one called “Every Girl in a Tent,” Kerr said.