It’s summertime, school is out, and many families are at their wit’s end about how to fill three months of their children’s free time. Images of summertime are usually cast in a light of hot, lazy, relaxing days by a lake, but the reality for most working families is the struggle to balance the demands of adult work schedules with providing safe activities for children. This dilemma often results in hectic, stress-filled days comparable to those during the school year. While summer camp is an option for some, the cost of day and overnight camps can be too expensive for many families’ budgets. Structured activities are beneficial, but parents and caregivers should also keep in mind the advantages of unstructured time for children.
So what do we do to keep young children busy, yet also allow them to enjoy the summer months? Whether your child is a preschooler or school-age, a wealth of opportunities for fun, educational, and even relaxing activities are possible. Here are some tips that may be useful for families and caregivers:
Visit the library
Until recently, libraries offered little or nothing for children below the age of three, but in the past few years, many have introduced programs for toddlers. Children and adults can participate in activities that may include reading aloud, storytelling, fingerplays, rhymes, and songs. Preschoolers usually enjoy the group activities offered by libraries, where they can participate in puppet shows and arts and crafts activities. For elementary school children, there are variations of the read-alouds and storytelling hours that often include discussions and presentations by the children themselves, as well as summer reading programs. Many public libraries also offer training courses for children in using different software or educational programs.
What makes a place special? What are the physical characteristics of your hometown? Take children for a walk around your neighborhood and look at what makes it unique. Point out how it is similar to other places you have been and how it is different. If you live near a park, a lake, a river, a stream or a creek, take your children there and spend time talking about its uses. Read stories about distant places with children or sing songs to teach geography, for example "Home on the Range" or "California, Here I Come." Make a wish list of places you would like to visit with your child. Look them up on a map and plan a trip there--real or pretend.
View and create collections
Go to a children’s museum to view hands-on exhibits or suggest that your children start a "collection" and build their own museum. They can collect natural materials, such as acorns and leaves from a local park or sea shells from the beach.
Older children can learn about weather by using a map to look up the temperature of cities around the world and discovering how hot each gets in the summer. Watch cloud formations and imagine. Do the shapes look like horses, ducks or other animals?
At night, children can collect fireflies in jars, or depending on their age, camp out in a tent in the back yard. Create a treasure map for children to find hidden treats in the yard. Read about your state bird and state flower, and if possible, bicycle ride to a nearby park to find them.
Use community resources
Watch for special events, such as free outdoor music festivals or concerts. Many communities host evening concerts in local parks--pack a picnic dinner and enjoy time with your family. People are resources too--collectors, painters, and backyard naturalists may live in your neighborhood, eager to share their knowledge with children.
Rainy day activities
Summertime often brings thunder clouds. On days when outdoor activities are not possible, you can share family history and photos with your children. Pull out the old videotapes of past family gatherings and events. Prepare an indoor picnic with your child or cook dinner together.
Whatever the activity, children can enjoy and appreciate the summer months in ways that are both educational and stress-reducing for all involved.