How To Balance Structure and Ease For a Fantastic Summer

Most children feel liberated on their last day of school as the holidays stretch out, endless, ahead of them. Parents, on the other hand, often worry about how they'll keep kids occupied in the weeks that loom ahead -- won't kids get bored, fight with each other, and whine for more screen time and treats? And how on earth will you get anything else done?

But if you go into the summer with clear intentions, you can create a memorable, fun summer that brings your whole family closer, without screen time and with minimal whining and fighting. This is true whether you're home with your kids, or they're with a caregiver or at a day camp.

If parents are working, then kids do usually need a camp of some sort. It can be tempting to enroll them in a series of different, interesting camps (Cooking camp, Musical Theatre Camp, Tennis Camp). But it's usually best for children to stay in the same camp the whole time, because children build friendships and a higher comfort level with the staff and routine. They don't have to transition over and over to something new. And they end the summer with more confidence.

If a parent can be home with the kids, then you have more flexibility. The expanse of time without the obligations of school and full time work allows all of you to slow down, get more grounded, connect more, and enjoy life -- and each other -- more.

But to make life successful without the structure of school or camp, it helps to go into it with clarity about a few important issues. Once you're clear yourself, you can have a family meeting and get your kids excited about what's ahead. These guidelines also apply if your child is with grandparents or a nanny, and can be adapted for kids who go to a day camp. They're all about how you can create a summer of ease for both you and your child, by giving it a little structure.

1. Create some boundaries around how kids spend time.

  • Have your kids spend as much time outside as possible, every single day.  The more time children are outside, the healthier and happier they are. We're just beginning to learn why nature affects us so profoundly -- for instance, trees apparently release chemicals that lift our moods! -- but we do know that nature helps humans flourish. It may take kids half an hour to figure out what to do with themselves, but once they do, they'll find the outdoors endlessly interesting. They won't get bored, they won't fight with each other, and they'll sleep better that night. Being outdoors gives you the perfect opportunity to experiment safely with a more "free-range" approach, which fosters independence and resilience in children. Every indicator of physical and mental health will improve for every hour your child spends outside. 

  • Go screen-free for the summer. That's because most physical and mental health indicators will get worse for every hour your child spends using screens. You'll be under constant pressure to increase the screen time, so you're setting yourself up for whining. What's worse, kids who use screens don't develop the resourcefulness to entertain themselves. There is no benefit to your child in giving them screens during the summer, when they could use that open time for outdoor exploration, reading and free play. Summer is a wonderful time for kids to hang with their friends, but be aware that often they will be on screens at other kids' homes. Invite kids to your home and set up a sprinkler outside, or help them build a fort or obstacle course inside.

  • Every child should have some reading time every day during the summer. This is not just a time for them to "practice" or for you to get something else done. This is a time to get them excited about reading! Reading is correlated with most predictors of academic achievement. Every child can fall in love with reading. Here's how.

2. Create a routine.

For instance, every day we get up by X time. After breakfast, we all clean up the house together. Then the kids have play time. (No screens, preferably outside.) Then it's lunch time. After lunch we leave the house. Sometimes this is for errands, like the market. Sometimes, we go out together to a park or playground or hike or the pool or beach. When we come home, it's quiet time. Everyone reads or plays quietly for an hour. During this time, the parent can have some one on one time with each child. Routine gives a shape to the day and reduces power struggles and complaints about boredom. Here's why routines are so important.

3. Create the opportunity for your child to engage with the stuff of life: TIME.

Don't feel like you need to entertain your child. Your job is to create the structure; your child's job is to find something interesting to do. Lie on their backs and look for shapes in the clouds.  Draw a floor plan for the house they want to build some day. Compose a song. Out of boredom comes creativity.  Boredom is good for kids.

4. Create challenge.

Summer is a terrific time for your child to try something new, from learning to swim to riding the bus or subway alone to finding three vegetables they like. Why not do some safety skills training so you can allow your child a more free-range experience? Maybe everyone in the family can take on a challenge this summer and support each other in doing something courageous?

5. Create connection, fun and memories.

Make sure you have fun with your kids daily, and that you get some daily relaxed one on one time with each child. And don't forget to work with your whole family to plan some fantastic family memories, even if you don’t have the money or time to head off on vacation.  See #9 in this article for some ideas to get you started.

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