When summer begins, children jump for joy and parents cringe with the thought of entertaining their children for the long summer months. Summer has been long thought of as vacation time, but for parents of young children, without school, preschool and activities, summer can seem like a chore instead of relaxation time. We know from early childhood expert and theorist, Erik Erikson that primary aged children are balancing between two developmental dilemmas: a sense of industry versus a send of inferiority. At this stage, children need to experience competence and success in skills and tasks that mean something to their culture and community. 

Children want to experience success and fulfilling work, instead of failure or meaningless work. During the school year, most children in primary grades are busy challenging themselves and succeeding at a job well done. They are learning.  During the summer, their challenges are often few and their work becomes monotonous and meaningless. Learning either takes a backseat or is thrust upon them to keep them “up to speed.”

In order to help children feel that sense of competence and fulfillment, parents can offer their children many opportunities to become involved and purposeful every day during the summer months.  Learning can become a part of every summer day through these great ideas on how to keep your kids busy and engaged:

1. Outdoor activities are an obvious choice.  During most of the summer, children can spend many hours outdoors.  When children are outside, whether actively playing or not, the benefits are immeasurable. Outdoor playing allows for the following things:

• Large motor, active play offers children developmental benefits

• Fresh air and vitamin D intake

• Development of social skills Outdoor activities should be structured and planned as well as spontaneous and free.  Just because children participate in outdoor group sports, it does not mean that they no longer need outdoor play.  

2. Use nature to spark healthy living. Take time this summer to cultivate a garden either in your backyard or containers on your patio. Children can be uniquely patient when it comes to planting vegetables. Watching plants grow—and watering and feeding plants—gives a children a sense of purpose and something to look forward to every day. 

While the garden grows, children can track growth, through charts, graphs, photos and drawings. Upon harvesting, the vegetables become a means for learning about healthy eating and a great science cooking project. Children are more likely to eat vegetables which they help to grow than those on the grocery shelf. They are invested in the outcome and can celebrate their success with a grand feast.

3. Visit museums and historical places. Many of these wonders exist are never seen by children. Take time to visit town history museums—from large to small. Children find learning about their community to be tangible and more intriguing than somewhere far away or in a book.  


4. View art galleries. Art galleries and children do not seem to connect very easily.  However, children are inherently creative and enjoy learning how others create art. It is also interesting to see what they see in piece of modern art or how they feel about an impressionist painting.  By exposing children to these wonders, they can learn about their local culture and how to express themselves visually

5. Offer open-ended art activities every day. Offering open-ended art activities for children is a simple way to give your child the freedom of creative expression. Encourage the use of crayons, markers, pencils, chalk, watercolor paints, play dough, clay, tissue paper, and more. Open-ended art activities are just that activities with no specific desired outcome. Craft activities are those with specific materials designed to create something specific. When children use open-ended art materials, they are able to express themselves and their ideas.  Often children will spend a longer period of time working with open-ended materials than with craft supplies. After all there is no end predicted for the activity. Parents can also add materials that are considered “useable junk,” such as, paper towel tubes, plastic containers and boxes.  With a little bit of tape and glue, children can create amazing sculptures and add to their dramatic play.

6. Find a cause worth fighting for and support it. Children can be just as passionate about important causes than an adult.  Their motives are pure; to help others. It is also important for parents to start demonstrating for their children at a young age, the importance of giving to others. As a family, talk with your child about what is important to your community and to your children. Decide on a cause that is worth fighting for and figure out how your family can do just that. Community-driven activities could include: 

• Raising money and pet supplies for a local animal shelter

• Organizing birthday party bags for homeless children

• Creating placemats for mobile meal services

• Writing letters to church members who are elderly and homeboundUsing your child’s talents and interest in helping others will bring about a sense of worthiness and purpose with benefits reaching far past the summer months. 

7. Incorporate learning opportunities into everyday activities. The most important thing you can do to keep your child busy this summer is to weave learning into every aspect of their day (without your child knowing they are learning). When parents take time out of what their child perceives as “their summer” to continue learning tasks, such as writing practice, reading and math, then children often rebel.  

Remember: summer is a child’s vacation from school. How then do parents help children keep “up to speed” on learning so they are not losing valuable knowledge over the summer?  Incorporate learning into everyday tasks.  

For example: before going to the grocery store, go through your kitchen and help your children to write the grocery list. When at the grocery store, help children to read the list and find the items themselves. This takes time, but allows your child to practice reading skills and letter recognition; plus it allows them to practice a key life skill.  

Parents can also being a calculator for children to track expenses, adding items, multiplying for discounts and subtracting for budget. In this manner, children are practicing real mathematics and contributing to the family.  

Now that you have some great starter ideas for the summer months; make sure to follow these tips too:

Keep a consistent schedule with your child. Although there is temptation to sleep in each morning, helping your child establish a daily schedule that is a compromise between early and late wake times will give them freedom they never even dreamed of when they were in school. Be sure that you offer a consistent bedtime and mealtimes too. 

Provide a calendar of planned events for your child. Keep a calendar with your special activities or events penciled in.  When the day passes, have your child cross off the day in a countdown through summer or to a special event. If you are vacationing, include your child in the planning. Children can offer unique and simple ideas for vacations that over-planning adults often overlook. Be sure your child knows what is happening when—both visually and verbally. Children crave predictability and repetition to feel secure and safe as well. 

Create long-term projects to last for days, weeks, or months. Children have many ideas and many interests. Capitalizing on what your child enjoys will peak their interest in the activity. When interest is peaked, children will spend time investigating, exploring and creating to follow that activity. 
Instead of planning activities for them, offer a brainstorming meeting where you both can offer ideas of interest and ability. If your child is interested in dinosaurs, rocks, grocery stores or animals, find out what they want to know about them.  What are they curious about? Make lists and mind maps for ideas so nothing is forgotten. Use the ideas you come up with to help shape activities and events for the summer. Collaboration and provocation between children and parents are key components to the Reggio Emilia approach to education for children (Gestwicki, 2010).  By working together, being able to listen to the children’s interests and then going one step further to offer further ideas and actions, children will be able to be themselves and learning will be natural. 

Leave down time or “white space” for your child to be a child. Always remember, children need time to relax and be themselves.  Parents will often schedule their children tighter than their own work schedule and expect their child to feel successful and not run out of steam.  If parents keep their child busy, they will stay out of their hair, right?  No matter how busy a child might be, if the activities are not meaningful, mind active and interesting, children will become bored or fight to not participate. Including your child in the planning of the summer, what and how of their days and weeks, children will experience a sense of industry and competence. With the “white space” in their day, your child can take the time to enjoy it. 


Gestwicki, C. (2010) Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Curriculum and Development in Early Education. Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Robertson, C. (2010) Safety, Nutrition, and Health in Early Childhood Education. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

About the Author: Mary Muhs, M. Ed, is a program coordinator and instructor for the Rasmussen College – School of Education, where she specializes teaching Early Childhood Education degree students. Mary also has a Bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication from the University of Illinois. Additionally, Mary holds a Level-3 Illinois Director Credential and a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Administration.

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