Summer's finally here, school's out and kids are at home ... again. The days are now as long as they're going to get and all that evening light is exciting, especially with restaurants and events opening up. But maybe after more than a year of staying in, summer vacation isn't quite the novelty it might otherwise be. For parents and caregivers of children who are finding it hard to fill the hours and keep the extended days from becoming just plain long, here are some fresh ways to keep kids engaged in meaningful activity at home.
The most seamless way to snap kids out of that familiar restless state is to include them in household activities. This is particularly true for younger children. When you turn dinner prep, bath time, and cleaning into family time, children gain confidence and learn responsibility. It may take a little effort on your part in the beginning if your kids are not accustomed to helping, but it's worth it to persist through their resistance and endure any whining that may come with it. Yes, chores may take a little longer with a 6 year old cutting the carrots or a 4 year old folding the socks, but it beats having to pause every few minutes to break up a quarrel in the other room or answer the cry of "I'm so bored!" This doing-it-together strategy can also take some of the drudgery out of day-to-day drudgery for you as well.
The key points to getting kids involved are making the actions accessible and doing them with an enthusiastic attitude. It's normal for parents to underestimate the physical and intellectual capacities of their kids, while over-estimating their attention spans. You can easily remedy this by making projects physically accessible and breaking them into small actions. Your preschoolers are able to measure and mix and crack eggs as long as you provide a chair to stand on at the counter and hand them the right utensil. They can collect all the ingredients from the refrigerator and load and unload the dishwasher if you designate a specific location within their reach for them to put each item. To work with your kids' necessarily (and perhaps frustratingly) short attention spans, break up all actions into small steps and only tell them one step at a time. After every single shoe is put away from the area around the front door, instruct them about sweeping. "Cleaning the living room" is too broad and takes too long. "Putting away the shoes" is manageable and appropriately brief.
Kids are heavily influenced by your tone. If you rush through the evening bath as tedium, bathing will be an annoyance for them. It doesn't have to be that way. You can make any daily routine an opportunity to connect and learn, and your children will find it fun. At least part of the time. Try turning duties into a game. Freeze Clean-Up is a classic: Pick an upbeat song and tell your little ones to put the toys away as fast as they possibly can, but only until the music stops. Then they have to freeze! Unless you have a big brood of young ones, you will probably have to play the game, too, in order to really sell it. But just watch as the bedroom carpet becomes visible once again, with giggles to boot.
With the endless outdoor possibilities here in the North Coast summertime, there are easily as many opportunities for kids to participate in the wonder of nature. A little bit of structure added to time in the backyard, at the park or on the beach can make all the difference in keeping children occupied and curious. Try a rock scavenger hunt. Make a list of rock characteristics: smooth, rough, layered, sparkly, spotted, dark, light, smaller than the tip of your pinky finger, etc. One characteristic at a time, invite school-age kids to find a specific kind of rock, then compare. Take a notebook and some markers outside to encourage observation. Pick a favorite rock to draw. Have your kids find and draw three different leaves (reminding them, of course, to not touch if you're in a spot with poison oak or stinging nettle), three different trees or three different things they think are cool. Build a fort out of blankets, cardboard boxes, driftwood, camping chairs or whatever is on-hand. When the fog rolls out and there are some puffy clouds in the sky, ask them what they see in the shapes.
For arty and imaginative kids, bringing a notebook and a few common art supplies outside can go even further. Have your tiny artists tear up a couple of paper towels and glue them onto a piece of colored paper. Now they can talk or write about what they see in their art-clouds. Observing the surface of the ocean or any other body of water, ask your children what they think is underneath. Depending on their — and your — inclinations, you can let the conversation go in a scientific or totally wild direction. Suggest they draw a picture of what's going on under there. Kids 5 and older can even write a story. Asking questions is a great way to extend the activity beyond a few quick sketches. If your child says a family of skateboarding giraffes lives under the sea, ask what sort of ramp system the giraffes use to keep the sand out of their wheels. If your budding investigator tells you about seaweed and real-life creatures, the door is open to search the beach for evidence of actual underwater life. Have them look for and draw different kinds of shells and consider what animals once lived in or made them.
These are just a few ways to transform long summer days into fun, creative experiences for your whole family. The options are infinite. After trying out some of the ideas here, apply the basic principles to whatever you like — or have to — do in your everyday life and you can make the absolute most of this sweet summer vacation.
Lindsay Kessner (she/her) is a long-time nanny, teacher, artist, cat-lover and owner of Treehouse Parent Coaching.