In light of our experiences, we thought we might offer up some of the lessons we have learned that might get you somewhere from our experienced reality to your ideals.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Plan your departure time within a three hour window. Numerous things come up--nursing an infant, a blowout diaper, a fight that needs mitigation and subsequent discipline, the finishing up of food preparation. NEVER expect to leave on time, even if you thought you were generous.
2. Plan easy food and lots of snacks. This is hard if you have a friend like Rachel whose artistic expression is at its height in food. One time she stayed up until two in the morning making cornish pasties for our trip to the museum in downtown Chicago. Different pasties accommodated different food restrictions--the dairy free ones, the tomato free ones, the wheat free ones. I made pumpkin squares, and we had thermoses of hot tea. The fact that Rachel slowly pushed a stroller through the exhibits, commatose, diminished the enjoyment of the amazing pasties. I finally had to curb Rachel's creativity with our co-op lunches, which took an unusual amount of time to prepare, especially the lovely salads with gourmet ingredients. After I insisted on cheap rice and beans every week or hotdogs or lentils or tuna casserole, we received a letter via post from our children protesting the descent of our meals. I would recommend setting expectations low from the start.
3. If you are going to a museum, call ahead and find out what storage is available for all of the food that you will be carrying with you (since you cannot possibly feed 14 children in those expensive cafeterias). We did not know that one museum we visited did not allow food even in their lockers. Since our van was practically parked in a different state, we had to "hide" our food. We had our children squeezing under bushes into secret parts of public gardens and hiding baskets and coolers.
4. Find out ahead of time if your large van will fit into the underground parking garages. Measure your height so that you know when it says, "Clearing: 6 feet 7 inches," whether or not you will clear it. I have had to have children stand outside of the van and watch as we try to go under the clearing board to see if we can make it.
5. If you plan to be near any water, throw some old towels from Goodwill into the back of your van. Let children get wet and dirty, but then have ways to clean them off. How many times my seats have gotten soaked from wet and muddy children! I actually keep a large cotton blanket in the back that can be used for spontaneous picnics or to cover seats if children have had an unexpected adventure. Plan for any water to be an occasion for swimming.
6. Try not to draw attention to yourselves in museums. Make sure children keep their shoes on, even though the marble may feel so good on their feet. And don't let them point out interesting things in the paintings with pencils; and whatever you do, don't let them climb on the banisters or fall asleep on the benches.
7. Check your calendar to make sure than none of your many children has a music lesson in the middle of your outing. We have settled in to a nice wooded experience with our folding chairs and thermoses of tea, kids have just waded into the river and begun to find frogs, when one of us will be horrified to realize that one of the children has a music lesson. Trying to reach the teacher becomes a feat (left the phone (if you have one) in the car, which is a mile away, don't have her number, or the phone is not charged, or she isn't answering).
8. Make sure the parent with the best sense of direction picks up the van. We have packed up everyone, sent one parent for the van (which as I mentioned is a mile away), trekked with the nursing infants on backs and all the wandering, digressing children to the main road where the van should pick us up, only to wait for a lengthy time for the van. On one occasion, a woman stopped to say that she saw a large white van wandering around, the driver of which had stopped to ask her for directions, and she wondered if we were the passengers for whom certain driver was looking. I'm not sure why we looked like a group that belonged in a large van?
9. Beware of strange "hanger-on's" in wooded areas. Large groups of children attract adults who have never grown up. On one river outing, we noticed some strange characters who then tried to join our picnic. I had to tell Kevin that we did not know him and felt uncomfortable having him join us seeing that he was a stranger. During this conversation, Rachel was leading a search party for our two boys who had gone way up the river. (Note: Even moms of lots of children who want their children to wander and be carefree worry about their children being victims. This is normal. The fact that Kevin's friends were not with him made our creative minds run wild into thinking he was distracting us while his friends went after the animals that were on the edge of the herd). I told Kevin that I was glad to make a sandwich for him, but he would have to leave once I gave it to him. He stood over me as I constructed the sandwich asking for more mayonnaise, and could he please have a second piece of bread on top of the sandwich. I informed him that if we were having open faced sandwiches, so could he. Kevin and his buddies were later found writing down our license plates and pretending to be cops. It is a good thing that when the real cop arrived (we finally made the call), she was unfazed by our gaggle of children, as she herself was one of 12.
10. I cannot over-emphasize the magnet that your group will be for people who want to be with you. A certain Marcela is in one of our group shots at the Art Institute. She said she was pregnant with her own granddaughter. Even Rachel and I, who are very pro-life, could not believe that. (By the way, we got in trouble for climbing on that sturdy lion. Don't do that when you come to Chicago).
11. Make sure that the river by which you plan to have your idyllic picnic is not one that has recently been drained. The boys will not notice and will crawl in the mud slop just as happily. They sat covered in mud while they ate their grilled chicken wraps with grilled vegetables.
12. Make sure some child is wearing either a cape or a costume that ensures people will know you are homeschooled.
13. When planning to depart for a full two family camping trip that will last several days, make sure that the husbands have engineering degrees or at least children who are gifted in such ways for the strapping on of the two kayaks, the sleeping bags that need to be packed inside boats, paddles, fishing poles, ten bikes, and tiki torches that go on outside the van. For the inside of the vans: make sure you pack the children in first; then you can put containers, tents, duffle bags, coolers, boxes of food, propane stoves, awnings, folding chairs, balls, BB guns, and dog all the way up to the door. One time we realized the kids couldn't get out to go to the bathroom at a pit stop.
14. Get a lot of sleep before you leave on a big camping adventure. We left once when three of the four parents had gotten a half hour of sleep before leaving at 6:00am (we had planned to leave at 4:30am, but since we hadn't gone to bed yet, we indulged in a later departure). The other parent who had clocked two hours of sleep was the designated grown-up. One driver pulled into a gas station for gas, put his pillow on the window and promptly fell asleep.
15. Pack for the right weather. We have had to run into town to resale shops to buy every reasonable sweater we could find. Rachel wore a sweater on her head one whole weekend.
16. Don't worry about firewood. Since you can never take firewood into forested preserves, just find it local. Dead trees are all over the ground. Just make sure you have teenage boys along with all of their saws and axes. We have burned through a tree before just by sawing off sections into the fire.
17. No matter what you do, take enough chocolate.
In spite of all of your best laid plans that go awry, I can promise you that you will have a boat load of memories and shared experiences about which to reminisce. Just maybe the ideal experience wouldn't have even made it into the long term memory. The real memory was just so much more...real.
In the words of the winged messenger, Nike, "Just do it."