Don't Overschedule Kids This Summer: 8 Science-Backed Activities to Try Instead by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
Parents have always overscheduled kids during the summer. And after a year-plus of them sitting home, physically distancing and Zoom learning – which cut them off from their normal activities – we are even more likely to pack out their summer calendars to make up for lost time. Another overscheduled summer – especially this year – could have dire consequences.
Yes, parents want their kids to be busy, but now isn’t the best time to catch up on missed academic and extracurricular activities. Kids are in a tough spot. They need this summer to reset and recover from the stress, grief and trauma caused by COVID. That doesn’t mean they have to be bored or inactive. They can use this time to develop a skillset to prepare them for life’s uncertainties. There are a lot of impactful things science tells us we can do to help our kids right now, and many of them are free and fun.
Most kids don’t have the skills to navigate and recover from everything they’ve been through for the past year, not to mention the disappointments and losses they will encounter down the road. We are likely to see an influx of mental health issues in our kids very soon. It’s crucial to get in front of the crisis now. Parents must help their children overcome challenges, deal with stress, cope with disappointment and learn to thrive. And summer is the perfect time to teach these lessons.
We can do this by instilling the character strengths that will help children transform into Thrivers – my word for mentally tough kids who have a sense of control over their lives and flourish in a rapidly changing, uncertain world.
Here are some summertime activities for your kids that are free or low cost and backed by science to boost resilience and reduce stress:
1. Embrace Old-fashioned, Unplugged Play
It is easy to dismiss toys, cardboard boxes, dress-up games and dolls as “lightweight,” but play is exactly what the Pandemic Generation needs. Play is one of the most often overlooked resilience-builders because it encourages kids to use their imaginations and enhances brain development, social-emotional skills and promotes executive functions, which helps kids pursue goals, ignore distractions and reduce stress.
Just put out scarves, markers, hats, wooden blocks, dolls or anything else laying around the house to inspire play in younger children and let the fun begin. And don’t overlook summer camps with swimming, canoeing, hiking and archery for older kids.
2. Set Up a Stress Box
If left unchecked, stress can affect children’s learning potential, friendships, physical health, emotional well-being and can reduce their ability to thrive. There is no right or wrong way to reduce stress. The key is to offer kids options so they can find what works best for them. Families can create a “stress box” by filling a shoebox or other container with proven stress reducers such as:
- a notepad and pencil (to draw or write their stress away)
- a small Koosh ball
- play dough or clay to work their stress out
- an MP3 or CD player and relaxation sounds to listen to with earphones
- bubble blowers
- glitter jars
- an app that teaches mindfulness
Consider including a photograph of a place that helps the child feel peaceful (the beach, his bed, grandpa’s backyard, a tree house), so when stress kicks in, he closes his eyes and imagines that spot, while breathing slowly.
Model each strategy with the child, then encourage family members to go to the container and find their stress buster when the need arises. Then make sure they practice using it over and over until they can use it on their own.
3. Embrace the Great Outdoors
One of the best-known mood elevators is nature. One study found that taking a 20-minute daily stroll or sitting in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature can significantly lower your stress hormone levels. Over seven in 10 parents admit their family doesn’t spend enough time outside, but when their kids do go outside, almost half report that their kids find the outdoors “boring.” In fact, the kids could keep themselves occupied outside for just 32 minutes before boredom sets in. So, get out those hiking shoes or bikes, or set up a tent in your backyard, or keep a basket filled with fun things like bubble blowers, rubber balls, sidewalk chalk, scooters, shovels and pails.
Other outdoor options:
- Set up a basketball goal.
- Give your kid a bag and tell him to go collect something: bugs, leaves, flowers.
- Provide a kite-building kit.
- Hand out plastic cups, spoons and bowls and encourage them to go dig.
- Fill a can with water and tell your younger kids to paint a fence.
Thirty years of research proves that outdoor free play is crucial for kids’ social, emotional, and physical development and mental strength. Open the door and show your child the great outdoors! Just remember to set one rule: Leave your cell phone inside.
4. Start a Hobby
Hobbies can be a healthy diversion from stress and are also a great way for kids to recharge, get away from everyday pressures and learn to enjoy their own company. The trick is to find one that supports your child’s interests and abilities – and it should also be one that they can do alone.
Begin by sharing your interests or starting family hobbies, and then watch what captures your child’s attention. You might even encourage a grandparent or relative to teach baking, knitting, woodworking, drawing, stamp collecting, guitar or any of their other interests. But beware: Studies find that parents who push an interest chip away at their children’s autonomy. So be sure not to pressure them. Instead, let your child explore activities and find their own joy. Shared hobbies can also help kids make new friends and reduce loneliness, so encourage them to try group guitar, yoga or drawing lessons.
5. Teach Unplugged Games
Duck, Duck, Goose, Mother May I? and Round Robin are just a few of the traditional and technology-free childhood games that you can teach your child. You need to teach these only once and then your child can teach them to the rest of the neighborhood. And while you’re at it, why not introduce them to marbles, jacks and hula hoops as well? Playground games are great because kids can have fun with them anywhere and they help kids to recharge and learn to get along with others.
6. Encourage Your Child to Read, Read, Read
A Stanford University study found that reading fluency is lagging by about 30 percent during the pandemic, especially for second and third graders. This shows that getting kids back to books is more important than ever. But there’s more: Fictitious worlds also help children deal with real-life problems and promote well-being. Pairing a book with an issue – whether it’s grieving, loneliness or fears or anxiety – can help children process their emotions through the characters. (“The character also had a problem with [blank]. How did he solve it?”) Books also stretch children’s attention span, help them focus, and teach them how to be self-sufficient.
Start a neighborhood book swap or a kid book club (online or off) where your child can find new titles and make new friends. Or just drape a sheet over a dining table to create an instant reading tent for families to read together and enjoy each other’s company. Don’t forget to get a library card!
7. Think Boxes, Boxes, Boxes
The Smithsonian voted the cardboard box the absolute best toy ever. Stock up on boxes in every size from small jewelry boxes to refrigerator crates. They’re not only free, but they can provide hours of imaginative play. Give your kids some marking pens and masking tape and they can make igloos, forts, villages, castles, garages, storefronts and hotels. Provide flashlights and they can turn them into caves.
Start looking around your house for recyclable items and put them into shoeboxes to add further inspiration. Save things like tin foil scraps, paper towel tubes, bubble wrap and ice pop sticks (just keep a running collection under your sink). Or clear your drawers of extra pens, paper clips, or scarves so whenever your child says, “I’m bored,” you can just point to the box and let the fun begin. A few themes might be:
- Picasso Box: Glue, empty toilet paper rolls, craft sticks, paper clips and sheets of tin foil. (This box is great for kids who like to do things with their hands.)
- Frank Lloyd Wright Box: Hammer, nails, wood pieces, sandpaper. (This box is perfect for your older, more active children, and not for wee ones or kids who still need supervision!)
- Frida Kahlo Box: Paper, crayons, pencils, paint, paintbrushes.
- Coco Chanel Box: Hats, scarves, old shirts, torn sheets, bath towels (for capes). (This box is great for dress-up and pretend.)
- Louisa May Alcott Box: Paper, pencils or a journal. (This box is perfect for young writers in the making!)
8. Teach Your Kids to Enjoy Spending Time Alone
Overparented kids often don’t know how to enjoy their own company, especially now that they have spent a year hunkered down inside. But resilient kids are self-directed and able to entertain themselves without programming or a lot of unnecessary supervision. Learning to enjoy their own company is exactly what the Pandemic Generation needs to thrive. Running lemonade stands, cloud gazing, making daisy chains, ball bouncing or spending just a little more time in the dirt and water can reduce a lot of the stress children have experienced over the past year and a half and can produce happier, more self-reliant children.
The truth is some of our kids actually need to learn how to play alone. If your kids come back after two minutes of alone time, you may need to teach them how to enjoy their own company. Start by thinking of age-appropriate activities that your child could “do alone.” (For a young child, this might be doing a puzzle; for an older kid, it could be learning to play Solitaire). Teach your child the solo activity using the baby-step model: First show how to do the game together. Next, watch and guide them to ensure they know the rules. Finally, wean them from needing to have you there until voilà! You can step back, and your child is playing alone.
Kids don’t need a lot of programmed activities to have the rich, rewarding and educational summer experiences that they desperately need right now. With a little support from you, they can unleash their creativity and enjoy an unscheduled summer that is anything but dull or boring.
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