By Dr. Laura Markham
“Summer afternoon…Summer afternoon… the two most beautiful words in the English language.” -Henry James
Summer lives in our imaginations throughout the year because it nourishes our souls. The warmth…. the fun…the sheer deliciousness. But mostly, the luxury of time, unbounded by school. Time to explore, to make new friends, to lie on your back and watch the clouds billow. The vivid aliveness and freedom of a child’s summers can change her forever.
Does this sound like the summer your child is having? Or is he glued to an electronic screen? Or maybe she just has to get up early for camp, so you can get to work. Or maybe he’s gotten so used to constant stimulation that he’s complaining he’s bored.
You CAN reclaim summer for your family. In fact, you can make this the best summer ever with your kids. It doesn’t take travel or a lot of money. And you can do it even if you’re working and your kids are in day camp. All it takes is your time.
That’s right, your time. I know that sounds like the one thing you don’t have enough of. If you’re anything like most parents, you have a long list of things that need to get done and you feel a little (or a lot!) overwhelmed. But it’s summer. Your kids won’t be kids forever. This is the stuff their childhood memories are made of. As George R.R. Martin says, “Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”
In addition to those lovely experiences that define summer, children also need lazy summer afternoons with not much happening. So, finding that sweet spot of “just enough” activity without over-scheduling is the goal. Why not decide now to make the most of this opportunity to connect with your kids? Here are ten simple tips to make this summer your best summer ever with your family.
2. Find the “sweet spot” for structure.
Research shows that kids get stressed during the school year from academics, homework, the social scene, and all the activities. They really need time to chill and relax. But they also need structure, meaning they need their day and week to have a shape, so they know what to expect. For instance, every morning after we play, we do errands or pick up the house together for an hour, and after lunch we have reading time together and then quiet time in our rooms. Every afternoon we run through the sprinkler or go to the pool.
3. Commit to de-stressing and just enjoying your life this summer.
Kids pick up our attitudes. If you’re stressed, they’ll be stressed, and they’ll fight with each other and drive you crazy. Even if you have to go to work, can you find a way to dial down your stress for the summer? And if you’re lucky enough to be home with the kids, don’t you deserve a delicious summer as much as your children do? Your positive attitude will create a relaxed, happy mood in your house.
4. Help your kids develop a healthy relationship with time
…one that includes the important life skill of being comfortable with their own company, without technology. Time is, after all, what life is made of. To help kids learn to reclaim their time, set up a Boredom Buster Jar.
5. Encourage your child to try something new this summer.
There’s no time like the summer to dabble, experiment, and play with creativity. Maybe she wants to try painting, or self-defense classes, or horseback riding. Maybe he wants to try writing a short story or learn how to throw a frisbee well. New activities encourage brain development and build your child’s focus, frustration management, and impulse control.
6. Strictly limit technology to certain times of the day.
When kids are bored and it’s hot outside, screen time has away of swallowing up all of their time. It may be a good babysitter, but we all know that’s not what kids need. The more you limit screen time, the better kids get at finding creative things to do with their time–and the less they bug you to watch TV or play computer games.
7. Institute daily reading time and regular library visits.
Books open the imagination, make time disappear, and give kids a wholesome alternative to screens. (Reading is also very highly correlated with school achievement.) Reading to your child develops a love of stories and books, which is what starts them wanting to read on their own.
8. Be aware that transitions take time.
If your child is starting a summer program or camp with new counselors and kids, you can expect some anxiety. Take time to play with your child in advance, because those belly laughs reduce anxiety and will help them feel less nervous that first day or so. And if your child is just home enjoying some down time, remember that sometimes when kids are released from structure, all those stressed feelings they’ve been carrying during the school year bubble up and they suddenly get a bit high-strung. So be aware that you might have a few grumpy days, plan on a few meltdowns, and make sure to build as much roughhousing and laughter as possible into your days.
9. Plan some fantastic family memories, even if you don’t have the money or time to head off on vacation.
Don’t wait. The key is to get out a calendar and schedule the things you really want to do.
Start at dinner tonight by asking everyone what they’ve loved most about this summer so far. Then ask each person to pick one thing for the whole family to do that will make their summer complete. Set parameters before you start. For instance, no hotel stays, and the total cost of each activity must be under $40 (or whatever your budget is.) Here’s a list of ideas to get you started:
Buy a badminton set and have a weekend tournament for all your friends and family,complete with a potluck barbecue.
Set up a water festival in your backyard that includes dunking, running through sprinklers, a water balloon toss game, a slip‘n slide, and a water balloon fight. Let your kids invite all their friends, and invite a few of yours, too. Celebrate the end of the day with watermelon.
Rent bikes and follow a local bike path you’ve never been on. Stop for ice cream cones.
Go camping. Go hiking, catch fireflies, roast marshmallows, sing songs, snuggle on a blanket and watch the fire together.
Go tubing. Or canoeing. Or rafting. Be sure to cool off by
Have a dinner picnic and watch the sunset (bring the bug repellent).
Go to the beach and spend the day body surfing. When you get cold, collect shells and use them to decorate your sand castle.
Go to bed really early some night when you’re tired, and get up for the sunrise. Bring donuts and coffee.
Make homemade ice cream. (You don’t need an ice cream maker, just rock salt and plastic bags; there are recipes online.)
Buy a mess of crabs and cook them up with some corn on the cob. Let the kids stay up late playing tag as it gets dark.
You get the idea. Encourage your family to come up with their ideal scenarios and make a few of them happen. Be sure to toast the family member who chose the activity, and take lots of pictures.
10. The last week of the summer, print out all your summer photos and make a Summer album.
Have a little family celebration on Labor Day weekend where you look at the album together and talk about everybody’s favorite parts of the summer. Remind each other of the things that seemed like disasters at the time but are now funny (every family has some of those!) If you do this every summer, you’ll create precious family heirlooms, not to mention a family tradition that will have your kids bragging about how fantastic summer was in their families….and begging to look at the Summer albums with you every Labor Day, even once they’re teenagers.