School's out, the long days of summer are upon us, and your kids are restless. Short of shipping them off to summer camp, how can you keep them happy and busy, and without letting them catch on, make sure they're learning along the way?
Here are tips on what to keep in mind when you're planning summer activities, as well as some easy ideas for little tykes, preschoolers, and school kids that will keep them entertained all the way through August.
Let Summer Begin
When the thermometer starts to creep upward, the first thing you should consider when planning playtime is safety.
"I think with all age groups, parents should consider safety first," says Barbara Roth, specialty consultant for child care for the YMCA of the USA.
With safety in mind, ask yourself, what activities are appropriate for your child's age? What safety equipment should you have on hand, such as a lifejacket if you have a pool, or training wheels and a helmet if your child wants to learn to ride a bike? Will you be home with the child, or working? If you're working, is an adult present?
"Kids should never be home alone, so make sure they're under adult supervision if you will be working," says Roth.
Second, what are your goals for your kids during the summer?
"Beyond simply keeping them busy, you want to keep their development in mind and realize how much learning goes on in play," says Roth.
Learning doesn't stop the moment the school bell sounds for the last time in June. Kids keep on learning all summer long.
"Kids also need to work on social-emotional skills, which is ongoing for all age groups," says Roth. "Make sure the activities your kids are involved in include kids their own age as well as kids other ages."
And last, remember that there is only so much time in the day -- don't overbook yourself and your kids so that summer vacation doesn't include a moment's rest.
"Eliminate stress," says Michele Borba, EdD, author of 19 books on parenting and childhood. "A big, huge calendar on your fridge that can help you keep track of everyone's schedule is a gold mine and really helps avoid overbooking. And make sure there are fun active things going on and also some laid-back activities. It's OK to have nothing to do, to spend some time in the sandbox."
Toddlers, ages 1-2, require constant supervision. Whether you are home with your child or another adult is supervising, these activities will help your kids have fun in the sun.
Bins of fun. "Get some plastic bins and fill them with fun things, and rotate which bin your child gets every day," says Borba. "Use paper towel tubes and toilet paper tubes in one bin, which are great for toddlers to use as kazoos and drums. Put play dough in another bin and let them play with that for a while. And old paint brushes with just water are great -- toddlers can paint anything and watch the water change its color, and there's no pick up for you after."
On a warm summer day, take the bins outside and spend some time playing in the shade -- when the bins get boring, take advantage of nature by showing your toddler flowers, playing in the sandbox, or swinging on the jungle gym.
Book time. "Reading is such a great activity for all ages," says Borba. "For toddlers, have book time where you sit down and read for a half hour or so. Point to the pictures and tell your child what it is, and after reading it a few times, it's amazing how fast they'll pick it up and start saying it with you."
Read books to your toddler that have pictures of things you'll find outside in the summer -- butterflies, flowers, birds, frogs, bees, anything under the sun. Your toddler will know the names of Mother Nature's creations before summer is over.
Swimming lessons. "Swimming lessons are great for toddlers as young as 2 or 3," says Ken Haller, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri. "And your whole family can enjoy this activity."
While swimming lessons for toddlers is a good way to beat the heat and introduce them to water, remember that children this age should never be left alone around pools. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "teaching your child how to swim DOES NOT mean your child is safe in water," especially toddlers.
Classic pastimes. Games of old are great inside, but even better outside in the summer. "There are very simple games toddlers really enjoy, like duck duck goose and ring around the rosey," says Roth. "Toddlers also love tunnels and forts -- you can either buy them or make them out of cushions and blankets. And if you're ready for some noise, give your toddler pots and pans to play with, or go for a quieter version, and give them Tupperware."
From ants on a log to chalk on a sidewalk, here are ideas that will keep kids 3-5 happy all summer long.
Simple kitchen projects. "Projects with preschoolers in the kitchen are always supervised and simple," says Roth. "Make ants on a log using celery, peanut butter, and raisins, and let the child do most of the work -- they'll love it."
Other simple preschooler projects for the kitchen: trail mix, apples and peanut butter, and for a hot summer day treat, ice cream sandwiched by cookies.
Arts and crafts. "Drawing with lots of different papers is a great activity for preschool kids," says Roth. "Give them different kinds of markers, pens, pencils, finger paint, chalk, and chalk paint."
Let kids paint to their heart's content outside on the grass to make cleanup easy, and let them use paper, cardboard, driveways, and sidewalks as their canvases -- your little Picassos will be busy for hours.
"Popsicle sticks and Legos are also great," says Roth. "Let them experiment with building and creating new things, which will keep them happy and help their development skills."
Green thumbs. "Give your child a small spade, a small piece of earth, and talk to him about the different flowers he can plant," says Roth. "Over the summer, he can watch it grow and it's a great project for your child -- and for you."
Projects like this can unknowingly be turned into a science-math-English project. Help your child look up the scientific name of the plant in the encyclopedia, and when the plant starts to sprout, have your child measure it every day, and keep a journal on how much it grows and changes over the summer.
Day trips. "With kids this age, and older kids, get a feel for what they're interested in at the start of summer," says Haller. "Take them to museums, parks, the zoo, and wander around and gauge what their summer activities might be based on their interests. And over the course of the summer, you can do more day trips that relate to the things they enjoy."
Kids 5-12 are more independent, and many of the activities that might keep them amused over the summer months might also fit for younger children if an adult lends a hand.
Journal entries. "One really cool activity is journaling," says Roth. "Older kids can write in their journal, and younger kids can draw. Parents can get an attractive journal, colorful pens and pencils, and give your kids some quiet time when they can journal on a recommended topic."
From their favorite summer vacation to their favorite school subject, kids will write and draw about anything.
"The cool thing is it can be a private thing, or it can be group -- your kids can share what they write, but leave that up to them," says Roth. "This activity helps build self-awareness, as well as writing and reading skills while they're away from school in the summer."
Scavenger hunt. "Go on a scavenger hunt," says Roth. "Get a book out of the library with different trees pictured in it and see how many you can find in your neighborhood, keeping safety first. Give small prizes with everyone winning something."
Rainy summer days. "For the rainy afternoon when it's not thundering, there are lots of outdoor activities that kids love," says Roth.
For instance, propose a science project, Roth tells WebMD: Have them predict how much rain is going to come down during the day. In the morning, put a measuring cup outside and have them track rainfall amounts -- once at noon, once at 3 p.m., and once at 5 p.m. With several kids, award prizes for who comes the closest, who has the highest guess, the lowest, and the farthest away, so everyone wins.
"If it is thundering, have the kids count in between the lightning and the thunder," says Roth.
Center stage. "For a social or emotional activity, suggest a few topics and have your kids write and then perform a play," says Roth. "The kids can work together to write it, act it out, and look for props and costumes, and then they can present the play to their parents and their aunts and uncles."
The library? In the summer? "Have older kids get a library card before school lets out in the spring, and then talk about what they enjoyed about the books they took out over the summer," says Roth.
Do your kids need incentive to even step within a mile of a library during the summer?
"Many libraries have book clubs that give kids prizes for every few books they take out," says Roth. "If your library doesn't have a book club, then you can give your kids a pizza party for every five books you talk about or read together."
Summer is an important opportunity for you to spend some time with your kids. Don't let that get lost because of a busy schedule.
"I would encourage parents to think about summer as an opportunity to help kids be independent, but to also do activities together," says Roth. "If kids are going to play sports, go Rollerblading, play baseball, if mom or dad helps with this the interaction is very positive for the children. Kids are more interested if the parents are involved in the activity."
And when all else fails to keep your kids happy or you've just plain run out of ideas?
If all else fails and the kids are bouncing off the walls, "have a few fun videos on hand that can keep kids amused," says Borba.