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50 Child-Centered Activities to Do With Your Preschooler This Summer That Promote Creativity, Curiosity, and Confidence

For their overall well-being, kids need lots of opportunities for free play—time when they choose their own activities with no adult intervention.

For their overall well-being, kids need lots of opportunities for free play—time when they choose their own activities with no adult intervention.

Child-Centered Summers: A Casualty of Our Competitive World

Over-programming their youngsters with activities during their summer breaks has become increasingly fashionable among parents in the U.S. during the last 3-4 decades.

Once common, carefree childhood pursuits—daydreaming under the shade of a tree, running through sprinklers with neighborhood pals, and building a treehouse with dad’s leftover lumber—are now frowned upon by some.

These moms and dads—anxious in today's ultra-competitive resume-building world— see such undertakings as unproductive, worthless, and a waste of time.

They’re utterly convinced that, in order to succeed in life, their kids need structured adult-led activities: summer camps, sports teams, music lessons, dance classes, scout troops, and tutoring.

The Negative Impact of Over-Programming Kids

However, Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, says that the opposite is true.

He argues that over-programming kids with summer activities is not only unnecessary but can be detrimental to their mental and emotional well-being.

In fact, he states that the decline in free play (activities that are chosen by the child, not led by an adult) during the past 50-70 years is linked to serious problems among children and teens that include the following:

  • Increased anxiety, depression, and narcissism.
  • A rise in the suicide rate.
  • A decline in creative thinking and empathy.
  • A decline in “internal locus of control.” In other words, kids are less likely to feel that they can make things happen (self-determination). Instead, they are more likely to believe that things merely happen to them (fate).

The Benefits of a Child-Centered Summer

When my sons were preschoolers, I planned summer activities for them based on Dr. Gray’s recommendations. I used his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, as my guide.

Instead of signing them up for soccer camp, Mommy and Me art classes, and swim lessons like my friends did, I created child-centered experiences for them.

Seven years later, I can say that it was the best parenting decision I've ever made.

Instead of having coaches, teachers, and instructors telling them what to do, my sons directed their own activities.

Today, I credit their child-centered summers for the confident, curious, and creative preteens they've become. Unlike many of their peers, they’re eager to take the initiative, be independent, speak their minds, follow their passions, and take on leadership roles.

Best of all, they keep themselves engaged without relying on me, their father, or screens to entertain them. My husband and I never hear those three words so many parents dread during the summer months: “I’m so bored!”

In this must-see TED Talk, Dr. Peter Gray details how free play is critical for a child's mental and emotional well-being and how its decline has led to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and narcissism.

Child-Centered Activities to Do With Kids: Outdoor Fun

Research shows that outdoor play builds self-esteem as youngsters use their bodies to perform new feats.

Whether it's climbing a tree, pumping on swings, building a sandcastle, growing a garden, or running across a field, physical activity makes kids stronger and builds confidence.

Children who engage in outside play on a regular basis develop skills for maneuvering tricky situations. As a result, they develop sound judgment and learn to take reasonable risks. They become adept at assessing perilous situations, knowing how and when to avoid them.

Dr. Jim Taylor argues that moms and dads handicap their kids when “bubble wrapping” them from all potential dangers.

Because of their overprotective parents, these kids become risk-averse: less likely to take on challenges and more likely to be petrified of failure.

He writes, “these parents are actually doing their children a disservice by not allowing them to gain experiences that will build confidence and instill resilience that will be essential for success and happiness later in life...the current parental zeitgeist is one of worry and fear for our children that is far out of proportion to the actual dangers that are present in their lives.”

With this in mind, here are some fun activities for preschoolers to do this summer that let them cut loose, try something new, get wet and dirty, and just have fun.

1. Paint rocks. Walk around your neighborhood to collect rocks. Bring them home and decorate them with tempera paint (this is best to use with kids because it comes out easily in the wash). Protect your finished product by coating it with acrylic spray. This makes it glossier as well. Place your painted rocks around town to make people smile.

2. Create a puppet theater. Bring the performing arts to your own backyard by simply hanging a sheet over a clothesline. Put on a show for friends and neighbors (watch the video below on how to make paper bag puppets).

3. Make a simple piñata. Fill a plastic grocery bag with water and hang it from a tree. Take a stick or bat and strike it until it breaks.

4. Have a water balloon toss. Fill large balloons with water and tie them with a knot. Take one and throw it from person to person. If caught, the balloon probably won't burst. If dropped, it probably will. The one who stays driest the longest is the winner!

5. Build forts in your backyard. Haul chairs, tables, blankets, and sheets from the house. Make a maze, a haunted house, or an entire compound. Grab a sleeping bag and flashlight to spend the night in your structure!

6. Have fun with turkey basters. Give each player a turkey baster and a large piece of paper. Have them put the paper on the ground and squirt water from the baster onto the paper. The first one to completely wet the paper is the winner!

7. Make a lemonade stand. Decorate signs to advertise your business and post them around the neighborhood. Donate the profits to your favorite charity or buy something special you've been wanting.

8. Play in the sprinklers. Add an umbrella to make it even more fun!

9. Go on a bug hunt. Take a flashlight and do it at night!

10. Create a large art piece. Use a sheet for your canvas. Hang it on a fence and wet it with a spray bottle filled with water. Use brushes and spray bottles to cover it with tempera paints. Ask your friends and neighbors to join the fun!

This video details the five easy steps for rock painting. Kids love making rocks and placing them around town as a random act of kindness.

11. Have a sponge toss. Get in your swimsuits and throw a wet sponge back and forth to one another.

12. Freeze toys. Collect some little plastic animals, rings, and coins. Put them in large ice cube trays and place in freezer. When frozen solid, use tools to tap the toys from the ice.

13. Have ping-pong ball races. Use squirt bottles to move ping-pong balls across the driveway or lawn. Challenge your friends.

14. Play with the hose. Line up empty juice cans or plastic water jugs on the grass or near the garden. With the hose, squirt them until they're all knocked down. Then try again!

15. Create an obstacle course in your yard. Use things around your house: boxes, jump ropes, hula hoops, and a mini-trampoline. Then, invite friends and neighbors to race through it.

16. Have a scavenger hunt. Do it in your yard, neighborhood, or nearby park by looking for things in nature: a feather, a pine-cone, an acorn, a 3-leaf clover, a purple flower, a worm, a butterfly, and so on.

17. Make a bird feeder. Tie a few feet of string or yarn to a pine cone. Spread peanut butter on it and roll it in birdseed. Hang it on a tree branch in your yard and watch the birds enjoy it.

18. Declutter your bedroom. Go through your closet and toy box to collect old games, toys, and stuffed animals for a garage sale or a donation to Goodwill.

19. Make music. Tie pots, pans, cans, plastic containers, and utensils to a fence, tree, or bush. Spray them with a garden hose or squirt bottle to make interesting sounds.

20. Have fun with colored chalk. Create drawings, write words, and make numerals on the sidewalk in front of your home or at a nearby school playground. Use squirt bottles to erase.

This video explains how to make a worm bin for composting and what you'll need.

21. Read in the shade of a tree. Grab your favorite picture books and enjoy them outside.

22. Have fun with wet sponges and paintbrushes. Wash the fence, porch, car, and sidewalk.

23. Make a composting bin with worms (watch video above).

24. Plant a vegetable garden.

25. Make a leaf rubbing. Go on a walk to collect leaves of various shapes and sizes. Place them on a piece of white paper and cover with another piece. Use the side of crayons to roll over the paper.

Child-Centered Activities to Do With Kids: Sensory Fun

Preschoolers explore the world through their five senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound.

Sadly, though, some of them today are spending too much time watching screens and too little time having hands-on sensory experiences. Therefore, parents should be especially intentional about providing sensory-rich activities for their kids during the summer.

Nowadays, kindergarten teachers lament the number of students who start school with weak fine and gross motor skills.

These children can’t hold a pencil correctly to write their names. They struggle to cut with scissors, color with crayons, string beads, tie their shoes, and even turn the pages of a book.

Because their hands haven’t been strengthened and their dexterity hasn’t been cultivated, they experience undue discomfort and frustration.

With this in mind, here are some fun sensory activities for kids to do this summer at home.

26. Mix up a batch of play-dough. Use cookie cutters, rolling pins, utensils, and scissors to squeeze, cut, roll, twist, and mold it.

27. Make little kites. Use construction paper. Add streamers and string. Fly them in front of a fan.

28. Assemble a dress-up box for dramatic play. Collect clothes from thrift stores, garage sales, and your own closets: dresses, shirts, hats, scarves, belts, shoes, feather boas, jewelry, purses, and costumes.

29. Explore paints. Use watercolors for a week. Then switch to temperas. Listen to classical music as you create.

30. Make musical instruments. Use items that you have around the house. Jingle keys on a large paper clip. Fill a water bottle with uncooked rice inside and tape shut, for shaking. Shake two paper plates stapled shut and filled with dried beans. Drum a coffee can with a plastic lid. Strum an empty tissue box with a rubber band placed on it lengthwise.

31. Create straw paintings. Place a blob of tempera paint on a piece of white paper. Blow through a drinking straw and make the paint move across the paper. Add another blob of a different color. Watch the colors merge!

32. Make prints with fruits and vegetables. Slice a potato, a carrot, and an apple. Dip the slices into tempera paint and then place them on a piece of paper.

33. Create a lamb. Draw the outline of a lamb on construction paper. Cover it with glue and place cotton balls on top of it.

34. Do fingerprints. Dip your finger in tempera paint and press it on construction paper. Try your pinky and thumb. Put some fingerprints close together in groups of three or four. Take a black marker and turn the prints into animals: a lion, a frog, a snail, or a giraffe.

35. Make paper bag puppets. Take some brown lunch bags and turn them into puppets with construction paper, yarn, and crayons.

This video shows how quick and easy it is to make paper bag puppets. Kids can get creative and make all kinds of characters for their shows.

36. Create a vase. Brush glue over a glass jar or bottle. Cover it with ripped pieces of tissue paper, overlapping the pieces. Cover with liquid starch. When it's dry, spray with lacquer to make it shiny.

37. Prepare a healthy snack. Take some celery sticks and spread with peanut butter or cream cheese. Top with raisins or sunflower seeds.

38. Make a groovy smoothie. Cut 2 ripe bananas into chunks. Add banana chunks, 1 cup unsweetened whole strawberries, 8-ounces vanilla low-fat yogurt, and 3/4 cup milk into a blender and mix for one minute.

39. Mix an astronaut snack. Use what you have in your pantry: pretzel sticks, popcorn, raisins, Cheerios, nuts. Place in a plastic bag and shake. Then, pretend that you're blasting off into space!

40. Make your own face paint. In each cup of a muffin tin, mix 1 teaspoon corn starch, 1/2 teaspoon water, 1/2 teaspoon cold cream, and a couple drops of food coloring. Make a different color for each cup. Then paint one another's face. Use your imagination to be whatever you want: a tiger, a clown, a dog, or a mouse.

41. Have fun with shaving cream. Cover a tray or table and drive Hot Wheel cars through it.

42. Play a game of marbles.

43. Built with wooden blocks.

44. Play games that promote fine motor skills. Don't Break the Ice, Don't Spill the Beans, Pop-Up Pirate, Pick-Up Sticks and Operation are good choices.

45. Make a "stress bottle." Take a plastic water bottle and fill it 1/2 way with water. Use a kitchen grater to make different-colored crayon shavings to drop into the bottle. Screw on the cap and secure with tape.

46. Start a "Creation Station" at your house. Collect recyclables such as bubble wrap, egg cartons, plastic bottles, paper and cardboard scraps, bottle caps, and yogurt tubs. Build sculptures with these materials by using a hot glue gun.

47. Have fun in the tub. Make bath time a fun learning experience by adding items from the kitchen: measuring cups and spoons, plastic bowls, soda bottles, a whisk, a colander, and a baster.

48. Do puzzles.

49. Make sculptures with toothpicks and play-dough.

50. String beads to make necklaces and bracelets.

In this video, parents learn about the infinite things that kids learn from playing with blocks such as sorting, measuring, counting, and estimating.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 10, 2018:

Great suggestions....makes me want to get out and do them too. My friend's granddaughter is always looking for fun summer activities....I will share these with her. Pinned

Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

Travel Chef from Manila on June 14, 2018:

McKenna, You're absolutely right! Parents must put extra efforts to play with their children more often or at least let them engaged in other outdoor activities. It's better to teach these kids, in their age, about the importance of their social environment.

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 14, 2018:

Thanks, Dred. I hope recent studies about the importance of outdoor play will get parents to limit gadgets this summer. The increase in anxiety and depression among children is a huge concern but can be combated by more play, more time spent in nature, and less technology. Summer gives moms and dads the perfect chance to establish a new routine with their kids that focuses on play, movement, and time outside.

McKenna Meyers (author) on June 14, 2018:

Thanks, Bill. My list was getting so long that I thought it might turn into a book!

Travel Chef from Manila on June 14, 2018:

You've got nice list of activities here! Moreover, kids of today most likely prefer to stay at home and play with their gadgets. However, it's up still up to the parents on how they gonna deal with their kids. Some used to enroll them in different summer courses or spend a vacation time with the kids or spend a quality time at home.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 13, 2018:

What a resource this is for parents...this should be a book...seriously!