By Molly Breen
Growing up in Minnesota, I live for summer. (I can hang with winter weather—I’ve even learned to love it, in some ways—but it is not my favorite.) Warm days when the light beams early in the sky and doesn’t wane until it’s late, at least according to the clock, are my kind of days. In my childhood experience, the summer months were a time for outdoor adventuring and independence-building, balanced with a lot of “do nothing.” I had a parent who stayed home with us, while also working, so we had the great privilege of being somewhat supervised but free to roam for most of June, July, and August. This was in the ’80s, when parenting and child care in general were much less hands-on.
In those days we, quite literally, would leave the house after breakfast, eat lunch at someone’s house, and come back home for dinner when my mom would call from the front steps. And then it was back outside after dinner until the streetlights clicked on—a sure sign that it was time for a bath and bed. There were ups and downs to the low supervision to be sure, but I quickly learned how to be resourceful, make my own fun, and assess risk for myself. Fast forward to today, and many children enter into the summer season without a break in routine. They may even experience an increase in their scheduled activities: gotta get in those swimming lessons and visits to relatives!
Another modern reality is that most families have two parents who work part-time to full-time, even if they don’t all live in the same home, so child care and enrichment opportunities have to be outsourced. This, coupled with an ethos in child care and parenting of near-constant enrichment and stimulation facilitated by adults, can actually limit a child’s development. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for low supervision! Supervision is important. In fact, kids who are left unsupervised are at an increased risk of injury that requires medical intervention. Instead, I’m suggesting that, as we conceptualize summer with young children and think about “fitting it all in,” maybe we can incorporate some of the ’80s low-key vibe into current care practices.
Here are a few ways to make that possible at home or in the classroom:
1. Schedule “do nothing” times of day.
Let it be part of the known routine of the day. Let kids know that you are there to help them during this unstructured time, but that they get to choose (within reason) how to spend it. I would encourage you to cultivate a “yes culture” for these times. As long as it isn’t dangerous, destructive, or disruptive, why not say yes? Give a stuffed animal a bath? Sure. Mix watercolor paints in the kitchen sink? Why not? The beauty of “do nothing” time is that there’s no agenda. And for kids (actually for adults, too), it is so important that they feel the agency and freedom that comes with free and unstructured time.
2. Create a shared list of summer hopes and dreams.
And then try to get to some of them! Let the list be as extensive and imaginative as possible: places to go, things to eat, stuff to create, games to play, new things to try, and so on. In my family, we always use a framework of “half for free and half for a fee.” This meant that at least half of the ideas should cost no money at all and either use things we have on hand or include free places to visit, and the other half can include experiences that cost money. But it doesn’t have to be half and half! You could try a totally free list.
3. Create a poster of shared summer expectations.
What should everyone expect out of each day and out of one another? Will there be quiet times and active times? Will there be outside times and inside times? Should everyone work on a project or a puzzle or an open-ended inquiry that includes trips to the public library? Sharing summer expectations can help create ease for the group with safe boundaries for the new circumstances. Don’t forget to acknowledge fun and joy in your shared expectations. It can be easy to get “rule-y,” but the whole point is to create a little universe of shared values. And if a shared value for you is to have fun or do things that bring you joy, it should go on the list!
4. Do something for the planet
Grow a garden in planters, pots, or garden beds. Whether you cultivate food to eat or plants and flowers to enjoy, kids can be part of every step from watering to weeding to harvesting. If gardening doesn’t appeal or seems too labor intensive, designate one day a week or a month to help pick up garbage in your neighborhood or a nearby park to help keep outdoor spaces looking and feeling loved.
5. Build community with neighbors, families, or neighboring schools.
Because pandemic times have required so much isolation and separation, summer is the perfect time to gather outdoors with friends near and far. School communities can invite families for evening picnics, perhaps featuring a game or activity or even sharing garden produce from a school garden! Organize an outdoor movie night and invite neighboring child care programs or nearby families. We love to do preschool family campouts: our program pays for a group campsite and families get together and camp for a night or two. We designate one family to be the “host family” for the group site, and they coordinate the meals and other details, including a big cookout potluck that all (campers and noncampers) are invited to attend.
These are just a few ideas to get the ball rolling on summer activities. But the truth is, summer can be a time for a relaxed pace, less activity, and more being together. Because there is nothing better than feeling safe, seen, secure, and connected to loving people—especially in the glory of summertime.
Molly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.
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