How to Structure Your Child’s Summer Break

I’ve seen lots of discussion about how to manage kids that are home all day during the summer.

Whether they’re home from school, daycare, pre-k, or even if you just have planned vacation for a week or two…how can we set up our days so that our kids aren’t just sitting around on screens and our house doesn’t become a pig sty?

What to do with these unoccupied kids?

The first thing to keep in mind during summer break is that…

It’s not your job to entertain your children.

You are not a clown or a cruise director, you are their parent.

It is not only okay, but good, for your children to be bored during the summer.

Yes, of course, we all want our kids to have some special experiences throughout the break, but that does not mean all day every day has to be Disney-level entertainment.

That being said we also don’t just want to let them do whatever the hell they want to do because they are young children and do require some structure and some supervision.

How do we balance these two needs?

First, create a daily routine…not a schedule, a ROUTINE

A schedule is by the clock, and that’s not the idea here.

A routine is simply an order of events. First we have breakfast, when that’s done we clean up, when that’s done you go play while I work, etc.

This means that on days where there is a clock-based deadline to some activities.

For example, you have a work call at 9am and therefore breakfast has to be done and cleaned up by then you can do that!

On days where there’s no need to be done at a certain time, you don’t have to change anything you’re still following the same routine, just at a different pace.

When creating a fresh routine, I like to start by placing meal times because those are fairly consistent and then fill in around those.

Some things you want to include in a summer routine are:

1- Regulation breaks.

How frequently does your child need a break to regulate their nervous system? Also known as, how long can my kid go before doing stupid, scary shit OR melting down?

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

Take that time, minus it by 20 minutes that’s how frequently you need to insert a break into their routine.

My kids are 8 and 6, they can go about 3 hours between breaks.

When they were younger 3 and 5 for instance, they could go about 1.5-2 hours between breaks.

It all depends on your child and how good they are at regulating themselves.

If they’ve never had to self-regulate, then most kids can go a max of an hour.

Figuring out how long your child’s regulation intervals are and what activities to offer during a break to regulate them is something we cover in ParentAbility, because it’s extremely individual to every person.

If this is something you don’t know how to do, I encourage you to go check out my free class, and then join ParentAbility so we can help you figure this out.

2- Insert long free-play periods of 1 to 2 hours.

I try to fit in 3 throughout the day one in the morning, one early afternoon, and one late afternoon or after dinner.

If your child can do 3 2-hour free play periods, that gets you 6 hours of work time.

If they can be outside for the majority of that time, even better.

In my house, I require my kids to spend 4 hours outside unless it’s pouring rain.

This means they can pick 2 of those periods to be outside, and the 3rd can be inside playing video games or lego or whatever.

On rainy days all bets are off and as long as they finish their chores first, they can do pretty much whatever they choose during their free time.

Any remaining time can be filled in with specific chores or errands like grocery shopping or going for a family walk or whatever.

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

3 – Make the Routine Visual

Pick pictures or icons for each block of time, and put it on a wall that’s central in your home.

Bonus points if you either make them removable or put them behind flaps so you can easily keep track of what is complete and what isn’t.

I like to use just a strip of velcro on the wall (yes, it damages the wall when you remove it- but it’s nothing a bit of spackle and touch-up paint can’t fix) and then add my routine images that I’ve laminated and put velcro dots on the back so that I can adjust the routine based on our day.

When we make the routine visual, it makes it easier to change day to day because they can see what stays the same, and what doesn’t. It makes the day predictable for our kids.

4- Set Up Some Daily Chores for Our Kids

This is going to vary based on age, obviously.

In ParentAbility we have a whole list of chores for kids based on various ages.

For instance a 2 year old might have to help Mom empty the dishwasher after breakfast by handing you dishes that you put away, and maybe wipe down a table with help.

Whereas my 8-year-old has to empty the pool skimmer, make his bed, wipe down the table after breakfast, fold a load of laundry, and check one of our gardens for weeds.

My six-year-old has to wipe the table after lunch, load the dishwasher, make his bed, and check one garden for weeds.

Pick some tasks your child can either help you with where they’ll make a real contribution or ones they can complete on their own.

This is going to help instill the idea that everyone in the house contributes it’s not all on Mom or Dad.

We want to make a visual for these chores so we don’t have to nag them about them. I usually put chore time on our routine right before outside time so that when I send them out, they’re eager to go out.

I put two on the routine so they don’t have to do them all at once.

During their free play time, we want to ensure we make it clear to our kids that we are working whether that’s that you have outside the homework to do, or you have household work to do.

Either way during playtime, I’m not available to you unless you’re injured or sick.

Tell them or even better, write them a social story about what they can and cannot do during that time.

When my kids were younger than social story basically said “You can play in the playroom or you can play in the back yard. You cannot swim in the swimming pool or play in the front yard, watch TV, or play on your tablet.”

It was pretty short.

Now that my kids are older, they’re allowed to go to the park down the road, go for runs as long as they bring their GPS, go to friends’ houses as long as they tell me they’re leaving and where they’ll be, etc.

They still can’t swim without supervision but now that they’re old enough and competent swimmers, our older neighbours (and when I say older I mean like, in their late 50s/early 60s, not 80-year-olds) are often outside and willing to supervise them swimming.

As long as they tell me and ask the neighbours to come watch them and they agree, they can swim if the neighbours are supervising.

These are the expectations you’re setting and by putting them in a story you’re basically making a manual that you can refer back to and they can refer back to.

Even if they can’t read because there are pictures!

When my youngest was 3 he wanted to go outside, and he brought me his summer social story to show me I had put in it so he could go outside to play with his big brother.

He couldn’t read, he just knew there was a picture of him and his brother outside and he came into my office and showed me the page and was like “I go outside with Wogie” and I was like yup, you can go outside with Logan.

It made the expectations really clear and avoids that “but you said!” argument.

It’s in the story.

I like to set a visual timer for my kids so they can see how much longer they have until their free time is done.

I usually turn off the alarm on the timer, however because sometimes they’re watching the clock and right at the 2-hour mark they’re done, other times they can go another hour or two.

The important part is to set boundaries, but during this time allow your kids to do whatever it is they want to do.

Some days that’s going to look like playing outside. Others it’s going to look like laying on their bedroom floor and staring at the ceiling, both, and everything in between, are valid.

Your routine is visual, it allows you to put things like screen time on the routine so that when they start begging to watch Blippi at 6am you can point to it and show them.TV isn’t available until after lunch, or whatever you decide.

For our toddlers, include their nap time so they can see, for instance, that you’re going to the park after nap.

Part of what makes summer break so difficult for children is that there’s no structure when they’re really used to structure at daycare and school so by providing that structure, we free them up from expending a lot of energy on trying to anticipate what’s going to happen on any given day, which means their behaviour will be much better.

Don’t overcomplicate it, don’t feel like there’s any one “proper” schedule.

As long as napping kids are getting their naps after a suitable wake window most days as much as it pains me to say, there are occasions that are more important than the sleep schedule.

Only you can decide what those are there’s really no right or way to go about this.

If you’re struggling to figure out a good summer routine for your kids, come tell us the big components and we’d be happy to help you figure it out in the Parenting Posse.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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