With children out of school, summertime can be highly challenging for American households. Parents are looking for ideas on how to keep their kiddos entertained but at the same time having them be unplugged. Michele Borba, Ed.D., has put together the following list of summertime activities for children. They are free or low-cost and backed by science to boost resilience and reduce stress. Dr. Borba is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.
Unplugged Summertime Activities for Young Kids
1) Embrace Old-Fashioned Play
It is easy to dismiss toys, cardboard boxes, dress-up games, and dolls as “light-weight,” but play is precisely what the pandemic generation needs. Play is one of the most often overlooked resilience-builders because it encourages kids to use their imaginations. It also enhances brain development, social-emotional skills and promotes executive functions—which helps kids pursue goals, ignore distractions, and reduce stress.
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,” says Dr. Borba. “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-Doh or clay to work their stress out
- Music player to play relaxing sounds that can be listened to with headphones or earpods
- Bubble blowers
- Glitter jars
- Access to an app that teaches mindfulness.
- A photograph of a place that helps the child feel peaceful (the beach, his bed, grandpa’s backyard, a treehouse), so when stress kicks in, she closes her 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,” says Dr. Borba. “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 out, 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 her 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,” says Dr. Borba. “Open the door and show your child the great outdoors! Just remember to set one rule: ‘Leave cell phones inside.’”
4) Start a Hobby
Hobbies can be a healthy diversion from stress and are also an excellent 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
Mother, May I?; Duck, Duck, Goose; 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 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,” says Dr. Borba. “Or 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 shoe boxes to add further inspiration. Save things like tin foil scraps, paper towel tubes, bubble wrap, and Popsicle sticks (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.
Spending Time Alone
Teach your child 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, says Dr. Borba. 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 precisely what the pandemic generation needs to thrive.
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,” concludes Dr. Borba. “With a little support from you, they can unleash their creativity and enjoy an unscheduled summer that is anything but dull or boring.”
Michele Borba, EdD
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Top photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash
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