Ah, summer … in Wisconsin they’re magical. I’m convinced our beautiful summers are Wisconsinite’s reward for making it through yet another winter. To be sure, summer everywhere is sprinkled with fairy dust, but, having spent the first three summers of my twins’ lives in Texas’ blustering heat, I’ve concluded that Wisconsin’s swimming season is a little bit of heaven. However, no matter where you summer, if you have school-aged kids, you’ve likely concluded that even the lazy days of the season require some structure.
I remember learning this lesson very clearly. The twins were three and preschool had concluded for the year. I had visions of us all sleeping in (remember, these were my first kids!), lounging in the morning while I drank coffee. Then we would stroll to the park, discover the bugs in our backyard, and whatever else tickled our fancy for the next three months. Well, two weeks into summer and the boys were whiny, bickering with each other and I was anything but relaxed. I quickly realized summer too required some structure: a predictable, yet flexible schedule we could all depend on. Every summer since I’ve instituted some sort of structure into our summer vacation, the form of which has changed to meet the dynamic needs of our family. This pre-planning has allowed us to enjoy the freedom summer brings while keeping the peace at home and ensuring the day-t0-day tasks that come with running a household (read: laundry, budgeting, cooking) still get done. Today I’ll share what our summer pre-planning looks like. Hopefully you’ll take away something that will work for your family too!
My overarching goal for this summer is to successfully balance the needs of my big boys (who are 8) and Jax (who is 18 months). I don’t want Chase and Noah to always have to acquiesce to Jax’s limitations and nap schedule, but I also don’t want Jax to simply be shuffled between the twins’ activities and made to fend for himself while his big brothers play big-kid games. So, I approached summer planning with this goal as a priority. My method involved three basic steps: 1) Setting goals, 2) Establishing a flexible schedule, and 3) Creating a calendar and binder of activity ideas.
Summer goal setting for us doesn’t involve an elaborate process (don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about a family vision and mission statement with supporting goals). I simply ask the big boys: What do you want to do this summer? And I answer the same question. This can be like a summer bucket list, but ours also involves some personal goals. For example, my twins want to do an in-depth study of the Civil War — so “Research the Civil War” is on their goal list. “Go to a Brewer Game” is also on their list. You get the picture. Along with other things, my goals include some business goals along with actually doing the things on my [Pinterest] boards. We write our goals down and share them with each other. Both of these efforts increase the likelihood of actually achieving them. When we plan our activities each week, we will consult our goal list to ensure that we are doing things that will help us reach them. I like that this process helps us complete things that are important to us, but I really like that it teaches the boys how to incorporate goal setting into their day-to-day lives.
Creating a Schedule
Without a daily schedule, the boys and I wonder around like lost souls. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But, in all seriousness, I’ve found that the boys are more content when they know what’s coming next. They thrive when provided flexible structure and predictable boundaries, and a daily schedule helps provide that. Our schedule is flexible. I don’t run a military camp, and I personally would feel suffocated if we were limited to a written schedule everyday. It simply provides loose predictability — in general, it says, “This is how things go, and this is what comes next.” We won’t follow it to a tee, and some days the schedule will be sacrificed for fun all-day outings in the city. It is centered on sleep schedules (I’m a bit of a sleep freak when it comes to my kids. Well rested children equal flexible, happy kids.) So I pencil in our general wake-up time (although I let the kids sleep as long as they want), Jax’s afternoon nap and their bedtimes. Everything else gets worked around that. This is what our schedule looks like this summer:
Chase and Noah are naturally fairly academic minded. They read like crazy (I have a harder time keeping them supplied with books than jeans that fit!) and love math. So, I don’t have to work hard to make sure they will keep up their school skills (but if I did, I’d work that into the schedule). They will beg to read and will ask to do [Khan Academy] (one of our favorite computer math sites) during their free time. I can see you mocking me by pretending to gag yourself. Stop it.
Collecting Activity Ideas & Creating Calendars
This is the fun part. I strive to provide a nice balance of at-home fun with taking advantage of activities offered in our town and surrounding areas. I start by printing out [monthly calendars] for each month of summer vacation. Then I fill in all our “known” activities: weddings, sports camps, family vacation, etc. Next, I scour the websites of local venues to find all the free and low-cost activities my kids might be interested in. I add all of these “options” to the calendar. These are simply things we can do if we choose to do them. In my town, these were some of the venues I consulted:
- Local Public Library: Our library has a large variety of activities that fit the needs of kids of all ages. We go to the library at least once a week during the summer to check out new books. This summer we could be there up to three times a week if we choose to attend all the age-appropriate activities they offer!
- Local Garden Center: Our garden center offers classes (some fee-based, some free) for kids; so I added these to our “options” calendar.
- Bowling Alley: Did you know that [Kids Bowl Free] works with bowling alleys all over the U.S. to offer kids two games of free bowling every day of the summer? For $24, you can add up to four adults to your bowling pass. This is a great rainy day activity!
- Home Depot: [Home Depots] all over the U.S. offer free kid’s weekend workshops. Check your local Home Depot for days and times.
- State Parks/Recreation Areas: Many state park and recreation areas offer organized activities for kids and families all summer long. I found plenty of interesting options at the state park nearest our home.
- Zoo: We have two great county zoo options within 1 hr. driving distance. We purchased a year family pass to our favorite one. The other offers 1/2 price entry fee every Wednesday during summer, so I added that to our Wednesday options. An adjacent town offers a petting zoo. I purchased a Groupon for deep discounts on entry tickets, so this is another option for us.
- Museums. We also purchased a year family pass to our favorite public museum — another great rainy day option. The nearest children’s museum and science museum are other options, but they are pricey so we’ll only go once, maybe twice. An adjacent city offers three free museums on the same street: a public museum, dinosaur museum and Civil War museum. The Civil War museum offers several special activities throughout the summer. Given Chase and Noah’s goal of studying that war, we hit the jack-pot with that one!
- Summer Recreation Programs. Our school district offers a large selection of 1-5 day recreation programs. Most of these cost money, and I ask the boys to choose the one they are most interested in that fits our schedule. This year they chose “Gears, Levers & Pulleys.” I think they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build a motorized machine!
With these activity options in mind, I created two quick-reference sheets:
Places to Visit this Summer. Half of these venues on the above list are close to home, and I know exactly where they are. Others I frequent rarely, so I created this cheat sheet I can quickly reference telling me their address, hours of operation and entry fees.
Special Things to Do. I created this list mainly for Chase and Noah. It lists activity options in three columns: 1) Options for Most Days (free and close to home), 2) Options for Some Days (farther away or have a cost involved), and 3) Once or Twice Outings (really far away or pricey). They can consult this list when we are planning our week or when they want to do something (free and close to home) during free time, but need some help thinking up options.
How We Plan our Days
So, on Sunday, we’ll consult our calendar of options (all the local activities that are going on in the upcoming week) and decide which ones we are interested in. We’ll pencil those in. We’ll then look at the “Special Things to Do” list and see if we want to add any of those options. I keep it very balanced – we aren’t running here and there all day everyday. That isn’t much of a summer in my book.
I love leveraging other moms’ ideas of fun at-home activities to do with kids. My favorite are open-ended water, crafty and nature-oriented options. Pinterest is full of creative options. This year I stumbled on [Camp Mom], an eBook published by 20 Moms (amazing kid-oriented mom bloggers) . I usually don’t buy these sorts of things, but this one seemed right up my alley. For $14.99 I got a collection of pretty creative ideas. I sorted through them, choosing ones I thought all three boys would enjoy, and put them in a binder along with the activities sheets I created. I also printed out and added some Pinterest ideas I’d been wanting to try with the kids. So, when we are tired of the same ol’ same ol’, we can consult the binder and find a fun activity to try.
To make sure we are prepared to hit the ground running with all the binder ideas, I made a list and purchased all the supplies we need and added them to my existing craft supply cabinet.
So that’s how we prep for summer around here. Despite all the “formal” organization, the flexible structure created by our planning efforts seem to provide the perfect foundation for creative free play. Our summer days are fun – balanced with organized activities, chores and good old fashioned play. I don’t get flustered all that easily, because I have a plan, and a back-up plan. While the kids sometimes complain of being bored, we have a collection of new ideas to try (or I have a chore list — which do you think they prefer?) This isn’t to say each and every day is smooth sailing. We have our moments, but I find that a little planning goes a long way toward making the most of our summer.