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5 Ways to Balance Structure and Fun for Your Kids During Summer Break

Worried your kids will spend all summer on the computer if you don't create some kind of structure for them?

Worried your kids will spend all summer on the computer if you don't create some kind of structure for them?

What Are Your Kids Going to Do This Summer?

  • “Can I play on the computer?”
  • “Can I play the Nintendo?”
  • “Can I watch TV?”

What parent isn’t bombarded with these questions at least one million times each day? Even when your kids presume your answer will be a resounding “no,” they still risk agitating the momster on the off-chance you might relent. Oh, and you do consider it, but you don’t let on. You know the slightest hesitation is like the drop of blood that triggers their shark-like instincts to maul you. Just for a nanosecond, you imagine the domestic feats you could achieve while they were lobotomized by the screen—prepping dinner, cleaning, laundry, ironing, mowing, maybe even a little “me” time. A busy mom has a better chance of riding a unicorn down a rainbow than partaking of any “me” time indulgence, so your reverie is quickly shattered. You resume your resolute poise, give them your best withering gaze, and channel your own mom’s voice with, “Find something to do, or I’m going to find work for you to do!”

No mom wants to be hounded daily for screen time during summer break. On your child’s last wellness visit to the pediatrician, he asked if you were abiding by the “two hours or less each day” of screen time mandate. You know exceeding the recommended amount can lead to behavior problems, obesity, stifled creativity, sleeplessness, and stunted social growth. You may sometimes brawl with your alter ego over whether to be the lazy parent who caves for convenience or the concerned parent determined to nurture the next generation of innovators!

The simple solution to the screen time war is creating structure for your kids during summer vacation. They erroneously assume “no school, no schedule.” You can tweak that mindset without being tyrannical. Balance rest and relaxation with responsibility! This summer weekday schedule will provide structure, make your daily expectations clear, and keep your kids engaged. Before screen time is awarded, your kids must read for at least 20 minutes, do something educational for 30 minutes, complete their chores, spend one hour alone, participate in a family activity, and exercise. They can track their own progress by placing a sticker in the box once each task is completed.

#1. Foster an Environment for Reading & Learning

Literacy is the foundation of all other learning. Reading increases vocabulary acquisition, sparks creativity, stimulates cognitive development, boosts IQ, facilitates communication skills, fosters critical thinking, improves writing proficiency, and increases the likelihood that your child will graduate from high school.

If your kids are too young to read independently, enjoy cuddle time reading to them. Make it fun! No Ben Stein monotone from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. Make the book come to life and engage your little ones. If you are reading a Dr. Seuss book, let them fill in their own rhyming words. Ask them what they think will happen next. Have them retell the story to you. Find a craft on Pinterest that pairs with your story to segue into your 30 minutes of educational time, or let them be word detectives who watch as you read to identify high frequency words.

For older kids who are already proficient at reading, combine reading with educational time by assigning a variety of book reports that will inspire them to dig deeper and further engage with the story. Some great extension activities include:

  • write a diary entry as one of the characters
  • draw their favorite scene
  • write an alternative ending
  • build a scene from the book inside a shoebox
  • write a summary on a paper bag and fill it with five items from the book
  • design a movie poster for the book.

Turn summer reading into a competition. Award prizes for reaching goals throughout your program. Your prizes might be something monetary, like a trip to Dairy Queen, a favorite toy, or cash. If your budget is tight, award privileges instead, like staying up an hour later, no chores for a day, or a trip to their favorite park. Sometimes sibling rivalry can serve a loftier purpose!

If you’re an “old school” parent, chances are, your summers were filled with swimming, vacation, and playing outdoors until dark. Learning was off the table until school resumed in the fall. A new body of research, however, has proven that students suffer learning loss during the summer months that can cause academic setbacks and lower test scores. Turns out, the old cliché use it or you lose it actually has merit! This loss of knowledge over each consecutive summer compounds and can eventually cause your child to perform below his grade level. Shock and gasp! Since most of us don’t want to be parents who place our kids on the fast track to failure, we can combat summer learning loss with cranium calisthenics.

If you are an over-achiever or the scholarly type, you might enjoy developing your own educational activities for the summer. Pinterest is the panacea for connecting learning with fun. If teaching isn’t your schtick, Summer Bridge books tailored from preschool through middle school can fill the gap. Each book covers all the subject areas and only requires a couple pages per day of work. Incentive stickers and reward certificates are included. Summer Bridge books teach your kids discipline because it requires a 5-day commitment each week, plus the activities are self-guided (unless they need help). Set up a tray for each of your kids containing their Summer Bridge books and make it their responsibility to complete the daily tasks.

Since STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is the wave of the future, find task cards online and assign one each day for your kids to complete. If your kids love Legos, google 30-day Lego Challenge to find some engineering feats they will love to tackle. is an invaluable resource for kids who struggle in any subject area, particularly math. Their website offers courses for every grade level, so if your child needs to master something he or she missed the previous academic period, you can easily re-do those grade-level assignments as a refresher. Maybe your child needs a head start in math for the coming school year. "Getting ready" math courses are available at every grade level.

Parents often unfairly expect schools to assume all responsibility for teaching their children everything they need to know to be successful. Studies prove, however, that learning outcomes improve when parents take an active role in their children’s education. Not only can you provide summer enrichment in core content areas, but don’t underestimate the power of field trips. Visiting historical sites, museums (art, science, and natural history), theaters, zoos, aquariums, gardens, hiking caverns, and other nearby attractions leave a lasting impression your kids and help them develop into more well-rounded and cultured people. You can help them look beyond their egocentric perspectives by broadening their scope of knowledge. Many Rec Centers offer summer classes and camps too—some free, some for a fee—so take advantage of the available programs in your community.

Summer Bridge Books

#2 Encourage Household Chores

Child labor laws will not be violated if you require your kids to complete age-appropriate chores. In fact, doing chores is linked to being well-adjusted, having healthy relationships, and achieving successful careers. Because kids today are involved in more extra-curricular activities than generations past, many parents have ceased assigning chores out of fear of over-burdening their children. However, from the fracas caused by whining Millennials always seeking entitlements, we need responsible, hard-working young people more than ever who understand the value of a dollar and aren’t afraid to put their noses to the grindstone. Chores are a much-needed discipline that teach several important skills:

  • Better Team Players—Kids learn to work cooperatively with others to get jobs done. If you want your child to grow into an adult who is a team player at work and a great marriage partner at home, teach them how to take responsibility for their share of the work.
  • Life Skills—Wives of baby-boomers complain of marriages born from that era, “When we got married, I just took over his mother’s job!” meaning husbands never learned essential life skills like cleaning, cooking, laundry because they always had someone doing it for them. When your baby birds fly the nest, they need know how to take care of themselves!
  • Self-Esteem Builder—Do you take pride in a job well done? Everyone likes a pat on the back once in a while. When you give your kids jobs they can actually do well—and without causing you extra work—the sincere praise you accord them bolsters their self-worth. They need to feel like they are integral to your family unit and that their contributions are valued.
  • Responsibility—Schools expect your children to be responsible. From the time their feet enter a kindergarten classroom, teachers reinforce the need for kids to handle their own bathroom needs, remember their coats and backpacks at the end of the school day and be able to put them on, bring their homework in each morning, follow classroom rules, and clean up after themselves. Some schools even teach “good citizenship” or “character counts,” and responsibility is a key component. One farmer’s wife shared a story of a crisis happening on the farm one morning that prevented her from helping her kids get ready for school. When she finally managed to return to the house, she was stunned to find the kids done with breakfast, dressed, and waiting at the bus stop. Kids are capable of more than you think. Give them a chance to show you.
  • Tenacity—Kids need to learn how to “stick with it” until the job is done. Do you know anyone who jumps into a job with vigor, only to burn out quickly and leave the task unfinished? You don’t want your kids to be the type of adults who start with a bang and end with a fizzle. If they approach their careers and relationships without tenacity, they may not resist the temptation to quit when things get tough. By designing your chores to be age-appropriate, you will give your kids the satisfaction that comes from seeing it through from beginning to end.
  • Many Hands Make Light Work—During the summer months, there are so many activities ripe for the picking! Swimming, hiking, parks, splash pads, amusement parks, biking, roller-blading, or even vacations and day trips. But, if mom is too busy doing all the domestic duties, she can’t sacrifice the time to visit these attractions. When kids know they are working toward a fun goal, they are more inclined to roll up their sleeves and dive in to get the work done faster!

One way to take the nagging out of chore assignments is to create a chore list that is suitable for the ages of each child. There may be some overlap. Next, write those chores on popsicle sticks. Each morning before your child gets up, have the chore sticks they need to complete that day in a designated place. You might keep them in a baggie, in their learning trays, in a cup—whatever works for you. Remind them chores have to be done to earn screen time to motivate them into tackling their tasks sooner rather than later. Some parents consider chores a child’s contribution to the household and assert that food, clothing, and shelter are adequate compensation. Other parents pay a weekly allowance whether or not each assigned chore is finished. In the real world, people are paid for fulfilling their job duties. At our house, a sticker is awarded each time a chore is completed, and when the chore chart spaces are filled, it’s time for pay day. Work within your budget, but be fair when rewarding your kids for jobs well done.

#3 Allow Time for Kids to Be Alone

Kids today are not spending enough time alone! After the school day’s over and extra-curricular activities are through, kids are ever seeking their next form of entertainment. And parents are too willing to provide it! If you grew up in the 1980s or earlier, you’ll remember it was unrealistic and downright absurd to think parents should be responsible for your amusement. Back then, if you hung around your parents and complained of boredom, you were told to find something to do before you were put to work! Today, moms and dads feel like they have to rush kids off from one activity to the next to be good parents. Oh, we might label these excursions “family time,” which certainly has its rightful place, but we don’t have to feel guilty when our kids have downtime. They need it!

“Alone time” in moderation does not equal abandonment or neglect. Expecting your kids to entertain themselves for one hour each day of the summer is not unreasonable. In fact, alone time teaches them how to make their own fun and be independent. It stimulates their imaginations, as they find creative pretend-play scenarios to enact with their toys. It gives them confidence in the real world—they can be happy in a cooperative situation with others, or they can be completely secure by themselves. And, if you have more than one child, giving each one a break from their siblings helps them decompress, recharge, and recalibrate. Separating your kids for one hour each day, especially if they fight, is like hitting a reset button. When they re-connect at the end of the allotted time, they will be refreshed and ready to play more agreeably—at least for while!

This one hour each summer day is your ticket to sanity! Use this quiet time to check off some items from your to-do list.

#4 Organize Family Activities

While it may sound contradictory to suggest daily family time after stressing the importance of alone time, it’s not. There is a balance. Spending no time with your kids has consequences. Didn’t you have kids so you could enjoy the benefits of actually being part of a family?

When asked, children say time is the one thing they want more of from their parents. Juggling work, cooking, cleaning, laundry, ironing, church life, appointments, errand running, and other commitments don’t leave wiggle room for much else. However, investing in family time is essential. Focus on the Family describes the difference between quantity time and quality time:

"Quantity time creates a safe environment where youngsters can feel accepted and valued for who they are. It communicates availability and fosters a sense of security. It establishes a solid home base from which children can launch out into the world with confidence and strength."

"Quality time, on the other hand, is essential to the process of family bonding. It's the stuff of which relationships are made."

Before screen time is awarded, make sure your day has included 1-3 hours of family time. Your activities might be as simple as chit-chatting while you bake cookies together, playing board games, or conversing in the car while you run errands. Or, you can relax at the pool together, go clothes shopping, take a bike ride, fly a kite, or play at the park. Your children will reap far more rewards from your undivided attention than they could ever procure from a screen.

#5 Exercise

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.7 million children and adolescents suffer from obesity. Being “the fat kid” creates haunting emotional ripples far into adulthood. It’s also unhealthy! Cancer, diabetes, heart disease, knee problems are all serious maladies linked to obesity.

The world isn’t as safe as it once was—human trafficking, the opioid epidemic, terrorism—all these societal menaces make parents leery of allowing too much freedom outside of the fenced backyard. Moms and dads breathe easier when they can see Junior watching TV, playing on the computer, or enjoying video games. But, Junior is getting chubby. He needs to run and play!

Find a bike trail in your community and bike as a family. Take a spin around the roller rink, or register for a sports program. Go swimming, take walks, or visit a park where kids can meet others their ages and play tag. If it’s raining, at least pop in a Nintendo Dance game and burn some calories! Keep moving and stay healthy.

Screen Time At Last

Once your kids have completed their checklist of reading, smart time, chores, alone time, family time, and exercise, they will finally attain the Holy Grail of screen time. Stick to the two-hour daily limit, distributed as you see fit, and your kids will also stay “fit” this summer—emotionally, socially, physically, and scholastically!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.