Edmonton mom Chamruong Janzen has three main priorities for her kids’ time off from school: keeping them mentally stimulated, not breaking the bank and still having some time for herself.
“I like keeping my children engaged and active, but it can be pricey,” she said.
While she’ll take her children, ages 5 and 6, to the local museum or swimming pool, Janzen often creates activities for her kids using everyday household items to save on costs.
“We often keep our cardboard boxes and play ‘cardboard town’… Sometimes we just play in our backyard,” she said.
Janzen isn’t alone in worrying about how to keep her kids active during the summer months. A recent survey conducted by Groupon found that 75 per cent of parents are ready for their kids to go back to school at the end of summer, and 58 per cent experience high levels of stress over trying to keep their kids busy.
Researchers asked 2,000 parents about the most common causes of their summer stress. Among them were letting the kids stay in the house rather than forcing them to go outside to play, not knowing where to find affordable children’s activities in their neighbourhood, expensive gas prices and their kids’ obsession with electronic devices.
Parents were also asked about the qualities they look for in a summer activity. The top priorities were activities that foster quality family time, are cost-efficient, will teach the children something new and are a good balance of fun and culture.
Most interestingly, several parents noted a higher interest in activities that their child could talk about when they go back to school in September.
Gail Bell of Parenting Power attributes much of this stress to a “real fear” that without a full summer calendar, your child will be less capable than their peers when they return to school.
“Society that if my child’s not in that extra swim class or that extra power skating class, they’re going to fall behind… but now, kids’ lives are completely scheduled,” she said.
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Bell also said some parents are keeping their kids active for the wrong reasons.
“Busy has become almost like a status symbol,” said Bell. “If you’re not busy, you’re not being productive.”
However, she fears that wanting to be busy can lead to overscheduling, which can have detrimental effects in the long run.
“When families are busy, comes home and it’s, ‘OK everyone, just go relax.’ But that usually means everybody goes — often to different parts of the home — and grabs their own screen,” Bell said.
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This is a double-edged sword Bell sees impacting many of her clients.
“This isn’t to bash technology — it can be an incredibly useful tool — but we have to become more aware,” she said.
“If you’re not looking eye-to-eye with your child and without a screen, you’re not with your child.”
In Bell’s view, it’s important to give your child a well-balanced schedule during the summer months. This means some planned activities, some unplanned “downtime” and yes, even some screen time.
Finding a balance
Planning summer break for your kids requires clear communication between parent and child.
“At Parenting Power, we’re huge fans of weekly family meetings,” said Bell. “Not only on the negative things but actually the positive things that you did with your child that week.”
Ask your child about the activities they liked and didn’t like and then turn to what they would like to try in the coming week, Bell suggests. However, it’s important to have this conversation within a framework of boundaries laid out by the parent.
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“Saying: ‘Here are your choices, and here’s our budget’… I’m a big believer of choice for children, within your family guidelines,” said Bell. For example, give your child three choices for a summer sport, but make it clear that they will participate in swimming lessons regardless of their interest (if that’s important to you).
It’s also helpful to lay out the schedule on a paper calendar that your kids can access whenever they want.
“Time is abstract for kids. They physically need to see it,” Bell said. “Set them up for success.”
It’s also totally acceptable to plan some screen time, said Bell. In fact, she encourages it.
“It’s part of their life… This generation of kids doesn’t know life without screens,” she said. “To say: ‘No, you can’t have your screen’ or ‘Why are you on your screen again?’ isn’t actually fair to the child.”
Technology can be a powerful tool for imagination, creativity and play. But in Bell’s view, it’s a power that must be harnessed wisely by both parent and child — and this involves lots of communication about “when, where and what.”
“ what’s acceptable in your home and when they can have it,” said Bell. This will empower your child to use technology without going overboard.
It’s OK for kids to be bored
If you’re strapped for cash or time (or both), try finding “teachable moments” around the house or in your everyday errands.
“Take them to the grocery store with you. Talk about a dozen eggs, talk about cost,” she said. “Go for a walk, look at the numbers on a house and how they make a pattern. Keep crayons and art supplies fully stocked. Play cards.”
What’s really important is that they’re spending time with their parents and their siblings, no holds barred.
“It’s just that connection and communication with family… reiterated every night,” said Bell.
However, it’s important to remember that being bored isn’t a bad thing. When planning a day for her kids, Janzen tries to keep her personal schedule flexible. This allows her to get in some spontaneous “me time” while her kids play quietly.
“I do have moments in the day where my kids aren’t always stimulated by something… we just sit and read or colour, do puzzles or quiet activities,” she said. “I believe having their alone time is important for them to learn how to regulate themselves and important for me — not only to gain back my sanity but to unwind.”
Bell agrees with Janzen — boredom gives children the time and freedom to explore their surroundings and their own imagination.
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“All human beings get creative when our brains have nothing else to think about,” she said.
If you’ve hit a wall and your children are constantly talking about being bored, sit down with a physical calendar and work with your children to fill it in.
“Break it down and say: ‘This is how we are using our time,'” said Bell. “Parents don’t need to be with their kids 100 per cent of the time.”
A call for government policy to help parents with summer vacation
“Last year, both my husband and I were working, and that was really hard for my kids. They missed me a lot,” Janzen told Global News. This year, she is a stay-at-home parent, but Janzen recognizes that this isn’t a luxury all parents can afford — especially when summer activities are involved.
According to parenting expert Ann Douglas, the widespread need to juggle your job and your kids’ summer activities reveals a larger gap in government policy and funding.
“Parents are being asked to figure out what to do to keep kids safe and entertained while also holding down full-time jobs. That’s why summer is stressful: because each family is forced to solve this problem for itself — by piecing together a patchwork quilt of summer programs,” she said.
“These programs are expensive, and they don’t always provide enough hours of care to allow a parent to put in a full day at work. Is it any wonder that so many parents are ready to wave the white flag?”
Douglas believes we need policies to reflect a shift in the world of work, where most parents are working full-time while their kids are out of school.
“There is still an unspoken expectation that someone is going to be available to do all the unpaid caring that raising a child demands, and that that someone, more often than not, will be mom,” Douglas wrote in her recent book Happy Parents, Happy Kids.
“The fact that we still don’t have anything even remotely resembling a universal child-care system in an era of almost universal dual-income parenting indicates how badly out of step our social policy continues to be, at least when it comes to responding to the realities of modern parenting.”
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