Updated: May 23, 2021
One year ago, I was on the internet scrolling Pinterest and websites trying to figure out what would be the best schedule and approach to the summer now that I was newly home with my 3-year-old and 5-year-old. I scrolled for hours, reading lots of articles and blogs. I also talked with moms who’d done this before, for ideas. I was so determined to come up with a plan that felt easy, fun, and enjoyable!
Fortunately, I did and it worked pretty well. We had a great summer together! We had more fun as a family than we’d ever had before.
There were a few key elements to our summer schedule that made it a success:
(1) We didn’t turn on the TV in the mornings
(2) I started doing major toy rotation
(3) The learning activities we did were short and sweet
(4) We incorporated rest time in the afternoons
(5) We mostly stuck to a schedule, but every once in a while threw it out the window and stayed in our PJs all day!
I’ll take you through each of these tips, offering ideas, insights, and inspiration. Click here for ready made summer schedules that will set your family up for success. You can also access these at the bottom of this blog.
Tip 1: Try to Minimize Screen Time First Thing in the Morning
It’s tempting to let the school year schedule go out the window and let your kids stay up late, sleep in, and watch TV in the morning. While this does give you a break from the normal routine, which can be appealing, it isn’t great for kiddos.
Screen time in the morning has been found to affect children’s moods (think crankiness), which might be in part a result of children being grumpy about having to “stop” watching, when screen time is up.
Further, research shows that consistent morning screen time is related to language and learning difficulties. It seems repeated morning screen time makes children less able to focus and more drained cognitively. It sort of zaps their creative energy and thinking powers. I call it “TV Zombie Brain,” which I surely notice when my kiddos watch a good chunk of TV in the morning.
This is not to say that you can’t occasionally turn on the TV first thing in the morning. On Saturdays and Sundays, my kids each get one show in the morning. This gives me a chance to get my coffee and ease into the day, and they have something they look forward to during the week - TV time in the morning on the weekends!
If using screens on weekday mornings is the only option, consider choosing educational shows and spend time having a conversation about the show afterward.
Here are Some Great Examples of Educational Shows:
PBS Kids (find on Amazon Prime or PBS Kids website)
Super Why: Uses fairy tales and magical adventures to develop literacy skills
Peg & Cat: Young girl and her cat solve all kinds of fun math problems
Sid The Science Kid: Fun, exciting science explorations driven by a young child’s questions
Molly of Denali: Learn about cultural traditions and experiences of a 10 year-old Alaskan Native
Dinosaur Train: Learn all about dinosaurs through the adventures of a family of Pteranodons and their Tyrannosaurus Rex son
Number Blocks: Unifix cubes come to life and build children’s numeracy skills
Storybots: Creatures who take on the role of computer-parts to answer children’s pressing questions
Super Wings: Airplanes that transform into robots to solve problems and in doing so learn about places and people around the world
Hello Ninja: Two children transform into ninja’s and learn important life lessons while solving unique challenges
Here are Some Alternatives to Screen Time (that have worked well for us):
Having a different morning activity to do each day of the week that becomes a routine - something that creates engagement and excitement, other than the TV. The activity can be as simple as puzzles every Tuesday morning or dot markers on Thursday and baking muffins on Fridays.
Having a consistent routine for particular days of the week creates regularity, and kids love knowing what to expect. Here are some that we’ve used with success:
Monday: Money Playtime (e.g., set up a store)
Tuesday: Tutu’s & Music (i.e., dancing)
Wednesday: Water (e.g., large mixing bowls filled with water for water play at the table)
Thursday: Acts of Gratitude/Thankfulness (e.g., write thank you notes, do a gratitude meditation)
Friday: Fry bread (i.e., family baking)
Tuesday: Word Games (e.g., Would you rather, rhyming, build onto a story)
Wednesday: Estimation Games
Thursday: Name Activities (puzzles, stickers, decorating)
Friday: Dot Markers
Morning Baskets You can also try Morning Baskets. Each day fill a basket with different items for your child to play with. For instance, you can put dress up clothes in the basket one day and different recyclables and loose parts with some tape another day.
Morning Challenges Another easy morning idea is Morning Challenges. Create a simple challenge and set out materials for your child to explore and use in solving the challenge.
Can you move these food items from the table to the picnic blanket on the floor without spilling them and without carrying them?
Can you move these marbles from this spot to the other side of the room without touching them with your body or any object?
Can you build a tower that is at least 12 inches tall and can hold 3 Little People (or any action figures/small dolls)?
Tip 2: Optimize Free Play by Doing Toy Rotation
Toy rotation involves putting away toys and pulling them out at a later time. When you bring the toys out after they’ve been away for a few weeks and perhaps even a month, your child may act like they’re getting the toy for the first time. They might be so excited about it that the toybecomes the focus of play for days, even a whole week! This fosters engagement with toys and promotes independent play. It also reduces the overwhelm that comes from having too many things as options for playtime. It also reduces stress because there’s less cleanup and there aren’t toys everywhere.
Organization is key to successful toy rotation. It’s ideal to have bins to put toys in and of course you need a place to stick them (closet, attic, basement, under beds). You can get creative with storage. I show you all the different ways that I have found storage space for toys in our YouTube video. It’s nothing fancy, but it works.
There are some toys I don’t put away in the toy rotation. These include blocks, Magna-Tiles, large LEGOs (small LEGO sets do get put away), and absolute favorite stuffed animals, dolls, or action figures. I also have puzzles and games easily accessible on a shelf with an expectation that each of my two children can only use one at a time.
To learn more, check out my video on Toy Organization & Rotation on YouTube.
Tip 3: Make Sure Learning Activities are Short & Sweet and Do Them in the Morning
In the summertime you likely want to keep the learning going, whether you're reviewing school year skills or you’re a year-round homeschooler. With children ages 4-6, learning time should be short and sweet, keeping excitement, engagement, and a feeling of joyfulness and accomplishment!
The Thoughtful Play Summer Curriculum offers creative, fun review activities and games for math and language arts. Your child will love doing these and you will see them solidifying skills and building confidence in what they can do!
Here’s the recipe for short and sweet learning activities:
Make sure the activities and games are no more than 10 minutes.
Use materials that are readily available in your home and make sure there is minimal prep time required.
Keep them simple - a clear purpose, easy to understand directions, and right at your child’s current instructional level.
Include a fun element that is a hook to get your child to want to do the learning activity/game.
You can read more about how we developed the Thoughtful Play Summer Curriculum in our blog about the Top 10 Key Ingredients for the Perfect Summer Learning Experience.
There’s nothing that fills me up more than when my children say things like, “Mom, this game is as fun as playing dolls or super heroes!” “Can we do this activity all day?” “This is the best game ever!”
Learning time in the summer should not feel like drudgery or something to get through. If you need support on how to make learning fun, follow us on instagram (@thoughtful_play) and on Pinterest (Thoughtful Play) for lots of ideas and inspiration!
Tip 4: Incorporate Rest Time in the Afternoons
Rest time is important in the afternoons. This gives everyone time to decompress and provides a break from interacting with each other. Rest time can be done inside or outside. Ideally it happens sometime between 1 PM and 3 PM. It should be a minimum of 30 minutes and ideal to work up to 45-60 minutes.
If you are just starting “rest time” for the first time, start with 5-10 minutes and have each child in a separate room or separate parts of a room. Make the expectations clear and be consistent. Also, be gentle and keep it positive. After the 5-10 minutes, focus on saying what you liked or what they did well, even if they struggled to meet the expectations. They’ll get the hang of it. It might take some time. Work up slowly to 30-45 minutes.
Rest time should be a screen-free time when children allow their bodies and minds to recharge. They don’t need to lie down in their beds. The goal is not for children to fall asleep, but rather to give their bodies and minds a break. This might mean they are doodling, coloring, looking through books, or calmly playing. It should be a time for everyone to be independent - this means there’s no talking to one another, no loud noise making, and no interacting with one another. That is, at least the children. They need a break from each other. For the moms out there, this can be a nice time to get one-on-one time with each child, if you have more than one.
We’re often outside during rest time, so we put out beach towels or a blanket, and do our own things. My son will play with tools and pretend to fix everyone’s bikes. My daughter will look through books or make flower bracelets. I use this time to model what it looks like to rest. Sometimes I meditate on the blanket. I also look through books and I take time with each child for a little one-on-one time. We usually end our rest time by coming all together to read some books or to play a board game or a word game.
It seems to reset everyone. It shifts my children’s moods. It’s soothing and refreshing. When we skip it, there are lots of arguments going on between my children in the afternoons. This is always a reminder to me to make sure I include “rest time.”
Tip 5: Stick to A Schedule, But Know That It’s A-Okay to Have Some Laid Back Days
Children thrive on schedules. Their little bodies need routine. They need to know what to expect, and their brain, body and muscle development requires good sleep. This means a routine in which children ages 4-6 are asleep before 9 PM is ideal and sleeping 10-12 hours is considered optimal.
In addition, a daily schedule ensures there’s a rhythm to the day that everyone can flow with. It keeps things moving smoothly. This doesn’t mean there’s an exact timing to everything and certainly not lots of transitions, but it does mean there’s some consistency. For instance, snack times, meal times, and bedtimes are approximately the same time each day. Also, there’s a time of day that you make your way outside - this likely depends on the weather - but it should be a similar time each day. For instance, when children know that on sunny days we head outside after snack, then in their minds they’re ready for it and you avoid resistance or an argument.
The same is true with learning activities. If you are able to consistently fit them in during the morning block, let’s say between 9 AM and 10 AM, then children pick up on the regularity and it can happen without any pushback from them. They know that they’ll do a morning routine that includes learning activities and games. It can be as simple as the following:
Having an occasional laid back day is also a must! This could mean letting everyone stay in their PJs and do free-play all day. It could also mean heading outside at 8 AM and just having a relaxing day playing in the water, riding bikes, and basically just enjoying being together outside. You have permission to throw the schedule out the window from time to time!
Summertime is a wonderful time to grow those connections with your kiddos! Everyone is happier when the days flow smoothly with ease, and with these tips and our example summer schedules, we are wishing you a relaxing and joyful summertime!
Enjoy and Play On,
Hollie Young, Ph.D.