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Practical Summer Fun Ideas for your Children

It was only minutes since last school bell for the summer chimed. My two energetic children stampeded through the front door cheering their freedom. I imagined their summer would be like mine, a generation before – one long idyllic, outdoor, barefoot celebration. They'd run, shrieking through sprinklers, organize neighborhood softball games and catch fireflies in jars. My fantasy lasted till after lunch the following day.

Jonathan, our 11-year-old, disappeared to the family room to zone out on a massive dose of mind-numbing computer games. Elizabeth, eight, whose friends are in day care programs, whined irritably, “I'm bored!” In the afternoon, the two bickered over which cartoon program to watch. I shook my head, confused. While I enjoy my kids, what happened to finding their own fun? How long until school started?

As a public school teacher and a mother, I welcome the opportunity summer vacation provides to relax and recreate. These days, I found it loaded with hazards and hesitations. First, what professional educators call “retention deficit” concerns me. Simply put, kids forget what they've learned. It takes a month to refresh their memories and refocus. Second, I don't enjoy playing taxi driver shuttling them to ballet, soccer practice and story hour to keep them busy and amused. I hadn't signed any contracts to become the in-house entertainment director, either.

My goal as a parent is to train them up in the way they should go. To do this, I had to develop strategies to meet the summer “I'm bored” challenge. In offering opportunities to learn to amuse themselves, I wanted to keep those brain synapses firing. They needed help to discover their interests. I longed to provide fun yet valuable life skill experiences in the process.

Although we agreed our summer remain as spontaneous as possible, the best place to begin was where I begin as a teacher: planning. I got a notebook and we listed ideas. We separated it into five types of summer fun: physical, spiritual, intellectual, artistic and – ugh - work activities.

As we developed the list, we decided some would be group activities while others would be individual ones, some would be parent-directed, others would be do-it-yourself projects. Because my children's school shifts subjects every 30 minutes or so, we planned more than one idea per day. Some might inspire more open-ended, uninterrupted time.

Believe it or not, our list didn't include a week at the carnival. Instead, it took a little ingenuity as we tried our best to come up with no or low-cost ideas. We agreed to limit watching television to one hour of cartoons each afternoon.

Physical Activities

The best part of summer is the endless activities that can be created when the weather is cooperative. Jonathan, Elizabeth and I took a survey of their athletic equipment and came up with a multitude of ideas. I added a jump rope, water guns, colored chalk, an old-fashioned jacks set and bottles of bubbles. Purchased at a discount store, they cost less than the amount I would pay if I bought them elsewhere. Our neighbor hung a tire swing from a shared tree. The first week was boiling hot. We hauled out the sprinkler, distributed water guns and invited all the neighborhood kids. In the evenings, we pumped up the bike tires and went on after-supper rides through a local park, trying different paths each day. They had Frisbee and Nerf ball tournaments with their dad. They unknowingly improved their gross motor development roller-skating. Elizabeth bought a pogo stick at a yard sale and worked every day mastering it. (We had helmets, knee and elbow pads for these activities.) Jonathan organized tournaments for bubble-blowing, sidewalk chalk art and games of jacks.

New Games From the Past

Unplug your kids from their video games. Call over the neighborhood kids. Teach them a game from your past. You may have to rack your brain for all the rules - or maybe you can make them up as you go along. Try these old favorites:

  • TAG - You're IT
  • Kick the Can
  • Duck, Duck Goose
  • Hide and Seek
  • Simon Says
  • Freeze Tag
  • Red Rover, Red Rover
  • Hopscotch
  • Mother, May I?
  • Leapfrog
  • Chinese jump rope
  • Dodge ball

Intellectual Activities

One concern many teachers and parents share is children take a vacation from basic reading and math skills. To combat this, the kids and I joined the summer reading program at the library. They attended weekly sessions led by the children's librarian. (I slipped off to the adult area for an hour of peaceful reading.)

The most memorable library session for Liz and Jonathan was the “snake guy” from the zoo. He brought several live visual aids. After that, we read more reptile books than I care to count. The librarian kept track of each total and awarded small prizes later.

We would soon move to Europe so we studied the countries. We borrowed language tapes and giggled at each other's accents. We made maps and posters. We listened to European folk music. We tried new recipes for foreign cuisine.

Jonathan shares a fascination with many children his age. He loves bugs. After a visit to a local nature museum, we created an “Insect Zoo.” We borrowed books and collected specimens in shoe boxes and jars. Some we examined under the microscope, others we released after one good look.

Another summer evening pastime was astronomy. Their dad bought a used telescope at a camera shop and they discovered the stars and constellations. They made pictures and reveled in God's intricate, beautiful night show.

A week before school began, I hauled out flash cards and workbooks and reviewed basic math facts. It isn't our favorite way to learn, it is time well spent when kids can “take up where they left off.”

Spiritual Activities

One area we had time not to neglect was our spiritual development. I devised a chart for the kids to learn Bible memory verses. For each one they learned, I awarded stickers and other trinkets. We celebrated with a trip for frozen yogurt at summer's end.

We began a prayer journal. We kept track of folks we prayed for and recorded God's answers. We made a conscious effort not to take a summer vacation away from church attendance. We went to VBS, a neighborhood backyard Bible Club and weekly youth meetings at our church.

Our family decided to have a summer “mission project.” There's an elderly couple in our church. Their children live far away and they miss their grandchildren terribly. We visited their home and invited them to ours. We helped weed their garden and wash their car. The kids and I spent one especially memorable afternoon picking fruits with them.

Artistic Activities

Elizabeth was born with an interest in arts and crafts. To encourage her talent, we practiced making costume jewelry. We discovered “thumb print” animals. We made clay from flour, salt and water. A friend taught Liz to crochet.

Jonathan studied video filming in his gifted and talented class at school. He used his basic knowledge to tape the neighborhood kids. He wrote poetry and filmed plays. One afternoon, they made each other up like clowns and taped a backyard circus. They played pretend school and even church services. Elizabeth and I visited yard sales and assembled a box of “dress-ups” for imaginary roles. Her grandmother supplemented the box with junk jewelry, old hats and shoes.

I can't say all their projects were successful. Some were downright flops. Others were so messy the payoff wasn't worth the cleanup. One very enjoyable afternoon was a trip to the country arts and crafts fair. We took a picnic and admired others' efforts.

Finding Summer Outings

Everyone wants to include a vacation trip in summer plans. Few can afford to get away very far for very long. The best some can do is a day or two at an amusement park or a long weekend at a lake. There are ways to help children beat the summer blahs. You can fill weeks with inexpensive outing until school begins. Consider looking into one or two of these ideas:

  • Check out the local parks and recreation departments. They often offer crafts, nature, sports and recreation programs.
  • Visit the public library. Ask about summer reading contests, film series and theater programs.
  • Contact the Red Cross. They may have water safety classes at the community pool or lake. Encourage your children to take babysitting or CPR classes.
  • Call the YMCA and YWCA and ask about youth classes and programs.
  • Remember your community zoo, nature park and museums or summer internship programs and field trip experiences.
  • Don't leave out your church. They have Vacation Bible School, Youth meetings, trips, camp programs and backyard Bible Clubs.
  • If you have teens over 14, look into paid part-time positions at fastfood restaurants and other businesses.
  • Organize your own family - and friends camp. Offer to trade kids for a weekend with a friend or family member in a different city. Maybe grandparents or aunts and uncles would like to host your children for a visit. A change of scene is a real treat for everyone.

Work Activities

Chores can be made tolerable group projects. I wanted the kids to learn the life skills of responsibility. The reward? We'd had more time for the fun stuff.

Instead of ambiguously ordering them to “clean their rooms,” I listed three specific tasks each day to concentrate on. For example, Jonathan put all his comic books back in the box, picked up his Legos and vacuumed. Liz dusted her furniture, picked up crayons and straightened her barrette box. They practiced bed-making and bathroom cleaning skills.

As a family, we loved tending our backyard garden. It was exciting to check each day's growth and finally, to savor vine-ripe tomatoes. We tried new recipes, each child taking a turn planning and helping prepare meals. Both children tried their hands at business enterprises. Elizabeth and her girlfriends set up a Kool-aid stand one week and made enough money to buy ice cream sundaes. Jonathan pet sat for vacationing neighbors. Both earned extra pocket change taking cans and bottles to the recycling point.

Reading all these summer ideas may wear you out. You may think it's too much trouble. If you're like me, you'd like to slouch on a chaise lounge, sip iced tea and soak up some sun. I decided to look at it this way: I'd rather spend my time helping with projects than referee arguments brought on by boredom. The key is planning and cooperative communication. Be creative but be sure to involve your child when making decisions. With a little effort, your summer may be one you'll all remember. It probably will be rewarding and relaxing as well.

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