The looming summer break has many parents on the verge of a full-blown panic about how to fill the 10 long weeks between the end of one school year and the start of the next. Many camp registration deadlines have come and gone. Summer school? You can hear the protests now. And the kids are clamoring for down time and some fun.
Maybe you have a family vacation or a day camp penciled in for a couple of those weeks, but what about the other eight? The kids must do something all day, every day, and preferably that something doesn't involve wall-to-wall screen time. And ideally, it will cost less than the average bathroom remodel.
Take heart, fellow harried parents. I've done a bit of digging, and there are fun options for this annual quandary. Here are some to consider.
Kid, get a job
Ask your child: What do you like to do but haven't had time?
"In summer, it's important to help kids discover their own interest and talents — skills that they develop outside the classroom," says Ana Homayoun, academic counselor and author of "Social Media Wellness." "So many kids are overscheduled. Summer gives them the opportunity to stop and figure out what they like to do."
A summer gig, whether paid or volunteer, can help children learn how to draw on their social network to find a job, build confidence and navigate life. It can also develop crucial communication and interpersonal skills, and help them understand the responsibility of reporting to a boss, Homayoun says.
After your child tells you what they are interested in, ask them how they might use that to serve the community. It's essential for the kids to find their own job, Homayoun says, to build confidence and resilience, and to teach them how to network. Parents should be available, though, to assist with brainstorming and offer constructive feedback or advice — when the kids ask.
"Even if they are not quite ready for traditional summer jobs, kids make great 'mothers' helpers' for younger children, dog walkers for neighbors, plant waterers for friends and neighbors who might be at work or on vacation," says Andrea Bastiani Archibald, the chief girl and family engagement officer for Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.
Options for older kids include working in summer camps, helping with a community garden, volunteering for animal shelters or assisting at the local recreation department, Homayoun says.
Bring the learning
If your child has a passion for a particular career, sport or hobby, consider pairing them with a slightly older version of themselves. Contact a local high school, college or university to hire a "near-peer mentor," Archibald says. The peer isn't a babysitter, per se (though you could certainly compensate accordingly), but spending time with someone with a background or skills that your child might want to develop will enable him to be inspired. And if the older child receives community service credit for the time, all the better.
"Think [of] a high school student on the soccer or debate team who can regularly engage your [child] in learning-related skills, or a college student with a major in computer science or fashion design who can share her knowledge and create some regular and fun activities," Archibald says.
Some schools have mentoring programs in place during the school year. Find the person in charge and start asking questions. Also consider sending out your request on a neighborhood email group or your social networks.
You can also capitalize on budding academic passions. Educational and tutoring services often offer "summer camp-style" academic support with fun activities mixed in to help prevent summer learning loss, Archibald says.
Also, peruse the colleges and universities in the area for programs targeting younger children. Montgomery College, in Maryland, for example, offers classes for kids in grades K-12, including design, engineering, a Marriott hospitality "kids' kitchen" class, stand-up comedy and automotive instruction. Northern Virginia Community College offers STEM camps in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties and in Alexandria.
Low-cost local options
Many parents overlook the (mostly) free options down the street. If you belong to a religious community, consult your clergy or the organization's website. Many local churches sponsor vacation Bible school programs, many of which are free. The larger diocese may also have information about denominational camps, which generally cost less than traditional residential or day camps.
Local libraries also frequently sponsor free activities for kids, including book clubs, summer reading contests and craft or STEM activities. Also check the offerings in your school district.
Harness the neighborhood
Send out the word on your neighborhood email list or through the school to find other parents in the same situation, then join forces.
"Create a day camp co-op with a handful of friends and neighbors with each household taking a regular day of the week to host and plan even a couple of hours of activities for a group of children," Archibald says. If you're a few parents short, perhaps a neighborhood teenager could take the reins for a day or two.
Have the kids plan a scavenger hunt with clues or items that need to be found around the house, the yard or the neighborhood, says Catherine Bagwell, professor of psychology at Oxford College of Emory University and an advocate of families — including neighborhood families — slowing down to spend time together. "Some of the best activities for summer are those that capitalize on that extended time yet don't require an extensive budget or resources," she says. And a neighborhood hunt could easily turn into an after-work activity for all.
Celebrate the end of each week of the co-op with a barbecue at rotating homes to create some adult fun, too. It is summer, after all.
Stroll with goals
Finally, think about making the most of the time you can spend with your children, even if you must be at the office for a good portion of the day.
Consider the extra daylight that comes with summer as an opportunity to get to know a different aspect of your kids with a nightly or weekly stroll. Need some structure for that? The nonprofit organization Marathon Kids has created a Walk and Talk program that provides 26 topics to start a conversation that should last just about as long as it takes to walk a mile, and a mileage log to track your progress. More athletically ambitious families can use the conversation-starters during a run. The program is free.