So it’s the second week of summer and you might be feeling summer planning stress. As much as I tried to enjoy schedule free days when my three girls were young, in summer I often turned me into my own version of cruise director Julie from The Love Boat. For the under 40 crowd, Julie carried around a clip board in this 70’s TV show, with an endless list of perfect vacation activities. I tackled many summer days stressed to make this the best summer for my kids, and piled up the mom guilt if there wasn’t a fun activity, an organized day trip, or a magazine worthy summer snack (because hello, this was pre-Pinterest days- thank God!) As a seasoned early childhood educator and Mom of three girls who all survived summer breaks through post secondary education, I’m here to tell you to enjoy your young child’s school free days— Because the secret to perfecting super summer memories is all in the un-planning.
Looking back, my girls say that some of their favorite summer memories involved a handful of water balloons that turned into days of entertainment. (I’m not joking- days! They wouldn’t throw them- they kept them, named them, created little water balloon habitats for them out of tissues and shoe boxes, and wept for them when they broke.) My girls spent hours playing store, or performing in home made shows. Some of their best summer experiences were those unplanned afternoons where adventure was created with the spark of their own imaginations. So here are 3 easy steps for un-planning perfect summer memories for your kids:
Time! Your kids need time. I’m talking unstructured, unplanned, uninterrupted time- with no screens within scrolling distance. Not every day. And I’m certainly not telling you to cancel your vacation. But now and then, strike a few things off that list of awesome summer activities and let your kids figure out what their day looks like. If your kid’s typical summer day is buckling in and out of car seats to get from swim dates to bowling to junior tai chi in the park then they won’t get the chance to stretch their imaginations and find out what adventure lies just past, “I’m bored.”
You’ve got to steel yourself. It’s kind of like those parents who sleep train. You know the beginning will be tough, but it will be worth it in the end. And, just like sleep training, you’ve got to trust the process. When the whining and lamenting starts about how very awful this incredibly boring day is, just shoo them back to wherever they came from- the backyard, the playroom, or wherever they are congregating -and tell them to ‘go play’. It’s common, during this transitional phase, to hear lots of groaning and moaning, but trust me! The magic starts right after the last, “There’s nothing to do!”
Warning: If kids aren’t used to stretching their imaginations, it might take a while. But every child has a magic sense of play inside them, and when you give a child time and space, they will find a spark. Not only that, but creativity and imagination, like many things, grow when you feed it. The more practice your kids get at using their imaginations and coming up with their own fun, the better and faster they will get at it. At some point the whining will stop and there will be an eery quiet…Your parent instinct kicks in… ‘What are they doing??’ You’ll head into the room to see spaces being created, characters divvied out, props being gathered. It might look strange at first. What exactly are they doing? You see the spark of imagination ignited in their eyes. That, mom and dad, is playing.
Support the Spark. Nothing supports a spark more than adding a few simple props. If the game involves a store, hand them a few pens. If they are creating a circus, give them an empty box or two. Clothespins, bed sheets, a deck of cards- simple props added to a spark of imagination are like dry kindling to a campfire.
Warning: Don’t butt in! Nothing squashes a spark faster than a well-intentioned adult who takes over the game. “You should add the clips here so the tent is more stable,” will have your kids abandoning the game and reaching for their iPads faster than you can say Fortnite. As a seasoned ECE who’s stepped in too far and squashed a spark on more than one occasion, I’m here to tell you that there’s an art to this. Position a few enticing props in their range, (like placing food within reach of an un-trusting stray) make a broad statement like, “Hey, maybe you’d like to use these,” then leave them bee. You can spy on them from the next room. Believe me, you’re gonna feel your kid’s excitement when you hear them exclaim, “Hey cool! Let’s use these for….” And they are off!
Ignore the Mess. The good part, when my kids played store, was that they created an intricate dramatic play game playing with each other for hours. And I am here to tell you, as I place my Early Childhood Educator cap on, that this type of play is essential for your child’s growth and development, and will make them a better student come September. Children develop problem-solving skills, increase their communication skills, learn to appreciate and deal with multiple perspectives, all while building their confidence as an innovator, and increasing their imagination and creativity. Tell me those things won’t come in handy when put in groups at school, told to work together, come up with an innovative idea for their project…etc.
Okay, so the bad news about this type of high-level dramatic play is that it can trash at least one of the rooms in your house. Not permanently! Just in the- ‘this room looks like it sneezed’ kind of trashed. Teeny tiny ‘price tag’ paper would be everywhere. Every toy and stuffed animal was out of it’s ‘tidied up’ spot and displayed. The mess would make me crazy! But those hours of play were worth it. And honestly, my girls are 19, 21 and 24 years old. There is no better feeling as a mom who no longer tidies up toys, than listening her girls reminisce, “Hey, remember when we played store! That was the best!”
So un-plan a few days, and let your kids create some great summer memories.
Some of my favorite stories about that magical sense of play are:
The Wonderful Pigs of Jillian Jiggs by Phoebe Gillman
My Think-a-Ma-Jink by Dave Whammond
Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley