Summer for kids: balance structured and free time

Marilyn Heins, M.D.
Marilyn Heins, M.D.

Summer activities? The good news is that parents and children have lots of choices: day camp, sleep­away camp, summer school, sports teams, music lessons, family vacations, visits from relatives, unaccompanied plane travel for children to visit relatives. The bad news is many choices means much logistical planning.

Before you sign your child up for anything, reflect on what children really need during the summer. They need to balance structured time with unstructured time, continue learning even though school is out, and experience personal growth and the joy of increased responsibility.

Summertime time

Unstructured time is valuable for two reasons. Children, like all mammals, need time to play. Both solitary play and play with peers prepare them for adult life. In addition, children need time to do nothing. They need time to daydream, think about the world, and watch the clouds go by.

Because too much unstructured time can lead to a near terminal case of boredom, children need their parents’ help to balance the summer so they have both kinds of time. The activities you plan together will depend on the child’s age, personality, strengths, skills, talents, preferences and the availability of resources in the community.


Summer learning

Just as adults should be lifelong learners, children should be guided to think of themselves as year-round learners. Don’t give your children the message that just because school’s out they can disengage their brains and waste close to 20 percent of the year.

Schedule some summer academics that fall into three categories: review, remedial work and enrichment. If the teacher has assigned summer work, help your child set up a schedule to complete the assignment before school starts. Is your child weak in an academic area? Ask the teacher for recommendations and set up a family “summer school.” Thirty minutes a week in spelling or fractions can be all a child needs to start the school year running instead of playing catch-up.

Look for enrichment courses in languages or computers or the arts at a public or private school. Private lessons in music or sports enrich the child in two ways by providing individual instruction and requiring practice time, which teaches children about self-discipline.

I am a great believer in a family summer reading program. How about a family reading hour where each person reads aloud from the same book or a family book group where everybody reads a different book and “reviews” it for the others? If the teacher did not assign a summer reading list, the parents can do it and offer a small reward for each book report the child presents or writes.


Growth and responsibilities

Just as children gain in height over the summer, so should they grow in responsibility … becoming increasingly able to do a task without being reminded. Parents can greatly enhance a child’s opportunity for personal growth by providing new challenges and experiences. Summer is a good time to help children become more responsible for themselves and to others.

Ask your child to set up a summer schedule and check it periodically.

Suggest your child keep a diary. Encourage or suggest projects that require planning. My children loved putting on plays or circuses using the neighborhood pets. Gardening is a good long-term activity. Summer is a fine time to start or improve collections or hobbies. Give each child extra summer chores. Older children can plan and prepare family meals as well as clean out their closets and make a list of what clothes and supplies they need for school in the fall.

Protect your children from an overdose of summer TV. I favor stringent summer TV rules to limit the child’s time in front of the TV set. However, DVDs can be used creatively to put on a family movie festival featuring historical movies or the great westerns or blockbuster musicals. Foster media literacy by asking your children to write down what they liked and didn’t like about each of the movies or discuss how one film differs from the others.


Time with parents

If you ask school-age children what they want from their parents, most say the parents should spend more time with them. This means not only family time but also time with each child alone. Involve the children in planning family vacations or mini weekend trips. Show them how to read maps and travel guides to plan a trip. Take each child out to breakfast or lunch once a week. This is a good way to connect away from the rest of the family and away from the house where all the gadgets are.

Children need both predictable routines and creative surprises all year round. Consider a mystery trip, a living-room floor picnic in the monsoon season, time together in the kitchen cooking a dish no one has ever eaten. Even a family chore like washing the car or painting the garage could be a memorable experience.

Summer can be pretty stressful if you are a mother who works outside the home as I did. I hired a college student with a car to do the driving to and from activities as well as plan fun trips to the zoo, etc. Also you can make grandparents very happy by “allowing” them to take the kids to their home or on trips.

When I look back on my childhood summers, what I loved most about my vacation was having time to do projects, reading for hours out on the porch, being put in charge of the house so my mother could take art classes (responsibility feels so good when you are 11!) and daydreaming lazily on a swing my father built for me in an old apple tree. I now realize my summer time was balanced. I recommend a balanced summer for your children.

Dr. Marilyn Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder/CEO of Email for a private answer to your parenting questions.