Social media is blowing up with those adorable last day of school photographs. This is the season of freedom and fun, and while many parents are excited to have their children home, I’ve heard those same parents confess after a week or two, “I’m running out of ideas of what to do with them!” or “We’re starting to go nuts!”
Transitioning from a structured school day to the grab-bag of summer can be difficult on parents and kids alike, potentially causing tension in their relationship.
There’s also the concern of keeping children’s minds sharp over the summer. The good news is, education is not limited to a classroom; in fact, I’d argue that the most important learning happens outside of school.
The first gift you can give your child this summer is the time and space for unstructured play. This mode of learning has been vastly undervalued over recent years, and awareness of its importance is on the rise.
The second gift you can give your child this summer is yourself. In her book The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis states: “Any educator will tell you that a parent is a child’s first and best teacher. And it’s really true.” Summer provides us with ample opportunities to engage with our children and foster real-life learning. All it requires of us is our time and attention (two precious commodities, to be sure, but ones worthy of offering).
Here are five simple, daily “educational” activities that you can do with your child this summer. I put “educational” in quotations because while they will nurture your child’s developing mind, they are not schoolish. I hope these activities will also strengthen your relationship with your child over those seemingly endless summer days.
1. Read for Fun
As a former high school English teacher, I know that nurturing a love of reading in your child will have countless benefits down the road. Reading is more than just identifying words on a page; it is a key that unlocks knowledge, inspires imagination, and cultivates critical thinking.
Find time daily to read to your child for fun, even if your child is old enough to read on her own. There’s something special about being read to. Even a child who allegedly “hates” reading will appreciate being able to sit back and listen to a story or poem.
You don’t have to read for hours a day; the goal is consistency. You could, as we do, read a poem each morning while sitting down to breakfast (I highly recommend Sing a Song of Seasons: A Nature Poem for Every Day of the Year). You could pick up a chapter book and read a few pages each night before bed. Whatever it is, it should be something your child enjoys.
This is also a great opportunity to introduce your child to some of your childhood favorites. Not only will your love for the text evoke a sense of excitement in your child, but it will make you more likely to commit to the practice of reading aloud.
If you’re not all that into reading yourself, don’t fret: audio books are awesome, too! Get yourself an Audible subscription or take out audio books from your local library. Listen while you drive in the car or work around the house. Pause it along the way to answer or ask questions.
If a book isn’t working out for your kid, find one that will. Whatever you do, keep it fun, and enjoy the time of connecting with your child.
2. Observe Nature
Spending time outdoors is good for body and soul. Children should have at least three hours of outdoor time a day, and part of that can be spent observing the natural world with you.
In his book How to Raise a Wild Child, Scott D. Sampson writes extensively on how to be a “nature mentor” to your child. Among the tips is to spend time daily observing nature together. Don’t feel like you have to plan a trip into the mountains or beach for true nature appreciation to occur: “the best place to fall in love with nature is wherever you happen to be,” he says.
Spend some time each day in a consistent spot with your child, whether it be on the front porch, in the back yard, or even gazing out an open window. Then, make observations and draw conclusions together. Consider the weather, sky, wildlife, insects, plants, even the earth itself. Ask her questions like: What do you notice? What’s different? What’s the same? What brings you joy? What questions do you have?
If you want to, you can even create a keepsake nature journal together, documenting a short description of what you observed, drawing pictures, or keeping little treasures.
You may be amazed at how much you both will enjoy communing in creation together.
3. Prepare Food
Many children enjoy playing kitchen. Why not trade in plastic play food and kitchen equipment for the real stuff?
While you are preparing meals, include your child in the process, giving him age-appropriate responsibilities, from fetching ingredients to mixing spices to chopping vegetables (and don’t think you have to postpone knife-work for middle school – my son has been using a knife since age two).
It is never too early for a child to develop the valuable real-life skill of cooking. Additionally, the kitchen is a wonderful place to reiterate math skills, particularly counting, fractions, and following directions. Kids who allegedly hate math won’t balk at slicing a real pizza in half, then quarters, then eights, especially if he gets to eat it in the end.
Including your child in meal preparation also nurtures confidence and competency. Kids love to help, and your child will feel a real sense of pride in being able to contribute.
4. Get Creative
By nature, children are creative and delight in self-expression. I’ve found that it’s the same for adults, when we’re given the opportunity to do so. By watercoloring beside my children, I’ve learned to value the practice of slowing down and devoting time to making something out of nothing for no reason other than the joy of doing it.
Spend time creating together. It could be as simple as finger painting side-by-side, making up a song, telling a story, decorating cupcakes, or constructing an edifice out of Legos. It could be as involved as working together on redecorating a room or building a treehouse. In the end, it should be something your child enjoys and will enjoy doing with you.
Refrain from complimenting the finished product. Instead, highlight the effort and creativity along the way. Say, “That’s interesting, tell me about that?” instead of “Good job!” When we validate process over productivity, we are teaching our children an important lesson. We also make more opportunity for connection; asking about your child’s creative work is a natural way to learn about her thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Getting creative is a wonderful way to engage with your child and embrace your own inner child.
5. Work Together
As parents, we have endless duties we have to accomplish. We have to mow the lawn and run errands and fold laundry and clean the house. Why not include your child in these daily tasks? You will be teaching him real-life skills while adding meaning to the mundane.
Young children, especially, can find “work” to be enjoyable, particularly when they are with a parent who is happy to be with them. For them, picking groceries off the shelf, stacking firewood, or weeding can be, well, play. Having your child involved can make it more fun for you, too.
Make cleaning the house into a game. Sing silly songs while you’re driving back and forth from errands. Ask your child questions while you fold laundry side-by-side.
If your child is uninterested in a particular chore, don’t force him into it. (After all, play ceases to be play when it’s mandated.) But you may be surprised how much your child will appreciate being with you, especially when you express gratitude for his help.
Enjoy your Time with your Kids
Remember, the number of summers you will share with your child is limited. Do your best to enjoy and make the best of each opportunity.
May your summer be filled with lots memories, fun, learning, and meaningful connections!