Read that title again. What? you’re probably thinking. How is it even possible to keep children of any age “stimulated” for an entire week, let alone an entire summer?
As a parent and educator, I understand: planning for the summer comes with a lot of anxiety and worry. In this age of technology, it seems that our children need to be entertained every second. I certainly feel pressure to make sure my boys have activities that give them opportunities for growth and stimulate their intellects. And, like most parents, I feel like an utter failure when screens win. Ugh.
Yet, whether you are at home with your children or working all summer, it is possible to give your kids more this summer without overtaxing yourself. Summer camps do offer fun and educational summer experiences, but for the rest of the summer, here are a few ideas for each age group.
Toddlers and Preschoolers
If you know a toddler, you know a few key things: 1. It is all about them; 2. They want everything now; and 3. Routine is paramount. The fastest way to a toddler meltdown is to disrupt their routine and overstimulate them. Best advice? Slow down, keep routines around eating and nap/bedtime sacred, and focus small.
As for preschool-age children, they soak in every little experience—including some you wish you could erase. It is important to remember that these little ones, though more capable and independent than their one-year-old selves, still need routine to help them feel comfortable. However, their imagination and curiosity now more readily guide them, reducing the burden on you.
Simple ideas for little ones:
- Get dirty! Mud, water, nontoxic finger paints, and sand call to young children. They want to explore with their senses. Simple tasks like carrying water in a bucket from one end of a yard to another and pouring it can provide gross motor opportunities and a lot of fun. As they get older, they seek to refine their fine motor skills, so offering painting with a brush or drawing in a muddy patch with a stick may be more appropriate.
- Baking. This is also a messy, sensory-happy opportunity, with the added benefit of being able to eat your results. Measure out everything ahead of time and have your child dump and stir. Muffins and bread are favorites and, presto, you’ve created a snack for the next few days. Older children may help measure and scoop, or chop fresh fruits and vegetables with child-safe knives. If worrying about whether the recipe turns out right, a messy kitchen, or dirty hands in the bowl causes added stress, find a few inexpensive ingredients that you don’t mind wasting, take them outside, and “bake” alongside them. The fun is in the process!
- Nature walks. A nature walk can take place around the neighborhood, in a park, or anywhere in beautiful Colorado. Let your child take the lead and share in their curiosity and wonder at the world around them. Sunny days are not a requirement, as puddle-splashing and dancing in the rain are fun. Gather a few other youngster-in-tow parents and create an outdoor group that hikes, explores, and plays together; always at a child’s pace.
- Reading. Reading to children is likely to capture their interest. Sometimes, toddlers do not have the concentration for a full story, so looking at pictures and describing what you see may be sufficient. For preschool-age children, take trips to the library and pick out books according to their interests.
- Take advantage of local museums and attractions, but err on the side of purchasing a membership and making frequent, short visits. Crowded public places can be overwhelming to young children and may lead to an experience where both of you are sitting on a bathroom floor, sobbing your eyes out. Instead, plan a 30 to 60 minute jaunt to your nearest museum, bring lots of snacks, and be prepared to leave if things begin to go sideways.
At around five or six years, the child begins to expand their interests and their social sphere. They become interested in broader topics and want to dive more deeply into their imagination and ideas. At the same time, they become more aware of groups and shared activities.
This is an opportune time to have your child set the path for the summer’s activities. For example, if your child has an intense interest in trains, you can research trains at the library, watch documentaries on trains, visit the Colorado Railroad Museum, find a train-lovers group to join, build cardboard trains, write stories about trains, take a ride on a train, or whatever you can dream up. The possibilities are as limitless as your child’s imagination.
Admittedly, you may find yourself very done with trains by the end of the summer, but your child will gain knowledge in a variety of ways on their subject of interest, which sparks their intellect and fosters their belief that you are interested in them.
For older elementary children, following an interest can still be very satisfying, but they are also moving into an age of categorizing themselves into groups. Finding camps, teams, clubs, and group activities with like-minded and similarly-aged kids may engage them in a way that we parents no longer can.
Let’s get real: most teenagers have very little interest in hanging out with their parents. If you know a teen, you know a few key things: 1. It is all about them; 2. They want everything now; and 3. Friends are everything. Work with your teen to find ways to keep them occupied during the summer.
Give them a budget and have them search online. They can collaborate in deciding their fate over the summer, within the limits of your family’s expectations. If they are old enough, finding a summer job, internship, volunteer work, or odd jobs around the neighborhood may be appropriate. They inherently need to separate from us (sniff, sniff) and begin to understand themselves in a world without our guidance. Your ability to give them freedom will help to nurture the adult they will become. And in the brief moments when they are with you? Soak it in.
But What If They Still Get Bored?
I recently came across an article by Nancy Colier in Psychology Today entitled, “Can I Let My Child Be Bored?” It neatly sums up what I learned in my own educational research: “In boredom lies the possibility that we ourselves can become a worthy destination for our own attention.” Does that mean that we can avoid planning for the summer? Of course not. But it does mean we shouldn’t feel guilty about every moment of boredom our children experience. It gives us permission to turn off the Wi-Fi and say, “You’re bored? Hooray! It’s so good for your brain! I bet you can think of something to do.” Or, for your own sake, “I can always use your help with…” Cue eye-roll and stomping off.