Summer is the afternoon of the year, a time for breathing out and letting go. It is also the time of long summer holidays which are full of promise for parent and child alike. Homeschoolers may be looking for a change of pace to reflect a different season, and parents with children at school for the majority of the year enjoy reconnecting with their families and having a break from restrictive routine. The reality of filling days of unreliable British weather, however, can be daunting and having a few tricks up your sleeve will help the holidays pass with success.
Like any good party, for the summer to feel dreamy and effortless, a certain amount of planning is required. While there’s no need to dictate busy activities for every minute of every day, some structure to your unstructured time can be a helpful motivator for children when they simply feel at a loose end. A bit of canny planning can lead you to take advantage of many free or inexpensive local events to punctuate those long days of idleness. Start with your local library and county council early in the summer, which will be sure to list goings-on in your area over the holidays.
Planned outings and events can spawn many an activity either in preparation or retrospect. If the idea of a bit of structure appeals to you, you could even give themes to a couple of weeks. If you attend a wildlife walk you could do some library research beforehand and find out about the things you might see. After the outing there would be scope for drawing something which had made a particular impact on your children during the excursion, or following up information about a new animal or plant you hadn’t expected to encounter.
Having themed weeks needn’t be heavy handed or feel too much like schooling. Themes can help frame the holiday period, which at times can seem to stretch endlessly, and then become crammed with busy-ness as September approaches. If you give some thought to three or four outings that you’d like to do during the break and spread these over the period, the remaining days, rather than seeming empty, will be a chance to be at home preparing for or reflecting on an experience. Activities can be adapted to suit different ages. For example, why not have a Water Week where you visit a beach, pool or lake? At home you could play with water, make paper boats and do watercolour paintings. An Animal Week could include a visit to a farm or zoo, pulling out all of your animal books, drawing animals, making animals out of bread dough. And a Food Week could involve a trip to a Pick Your Own (PYO) farm to get berries for smoothies, building a campfire or barbecue and cooking supper over it, or getting your children to organise and prepare for a dinner party with their friends. Having a focus which your children are involved in planning can shift an idle moment to one of inspiration, giving them a simple ‘peg’ on which to hang their ideas. Something regular to look forward to is enjoyable too. Last summer a group of parents from our school arranged to meet in a local park once a week at lunchtime. As an alternative to organising play-dates, the park days were a chance to pitch up and see who else was there - not knowing who we’d see was half the fun. These days our children don’t get many opportunities to congregate in groups and organise their own ‘wide’ games, mostly because cars, not pedestrians, rule the roads. By getting a gang of children together in a safe place, they’re in their most natural setting for coming up with endless time-consuming games, and returning week after week allows them to pick up where they last left off.
Parents can all contribute to a picnic and it’s a great opportunity to share childcare. If you need a little inspiration, look up ‘wide games’ on the internet where there are also countless Scout and Guide websites full of ideas. Capture the Flag and Smugglers and Coastguards are favourites of ours. The end of the summer holidays could be celebrated with a special picnic and a treasure hunt prepared by the parents and children in advance - again, more hours of preparations to keep the young busy and looking forward to a future event. Keeping plans adaptable and spontaneous will allow you to take advantage of the sunniest days, while having a few ideas in mind in advance means you can keep small minds and hands busy with projects to create lasting memories.
One opportunity to get involved in your community is through your county Wildlife Trust. There are 47 local Wildlife Trusts across the UK; charities that are run mostly by volunteers who maintain and watch over wildlife reserves throughout the year. Find their website at wildlifetrusts.org. Most local reserves hold events throughout the summer where children can get involved in short local conservation projects. There are walks and working parties, talks on birds, bees and butterflies, as well as some more unusual events like evening and nighttime excursions to spot bats and badgers.
For a proper local knees-up, try your local Agricultural show. The Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations, asao.co.uk, lists nearly 200 county fairs and shows held over the summer. Most of these will have competitions which your children can enter with age categories to level the playing field. There are opportunities to draw, paint, grow, bake, make and sew. There might be a competition for children to construct an animal from fruit and vegetables, cook a Victoria sponge and see how it measures up, or display the fruit and veg you might have grown in your own garden or allotment. Preparing for, and building up, to the event gives you something to look forward to, plot and plan. Practice runs for your chosen category could easily fill some gloomy afternoons. The shows themselves are a marvellous day out, a chance to meet the farmers and producers who live and work in your area. There’s something exciting about a ring full of prize cattle and their proud owners in crisp white coats, the animals spotless and gleaming as they are carefully looked over for mysterious qualities by po-faced experts. Or the beauty of miracle-vegetables which the wisest growers produce from your local soils. Whether your nearest show is a huge three-day county event or a small one day fair, the amount of commitment and enthusiasm it takes to pull these shows off is very impressive.
Capture the Flag
This is a great outdoor game. Players are divided into two teams.Team one has the front yard and Team two has the back yard, or a field is split between the two teams. The teams are given time, about five minutes, to hide their flag in their space (optional detail: during this period spies can be sent out to see were the flag is hidden, as well as look-outs to catch the spies). When the flag is hidden the teams call out that they are finished. Then they try to get the other teams flag. If you are caught and tagged by the opponent whilst on their territory, you go to jail and can only be freed by a team-mate who grabs you when your opponent isn't looking. The first team to capture the flag wins.
Coastguards and Smugglers
Players are divided into two teams, with a small team of Coastguards, and everybody else becoming Smugglers. The number of coastguards depends on the terrain. In open spaces smugglers need the advantage of manpower, while in woodland or areas where there are many hiding places, the coastguards need it! The coastguards establish a base which becomes the 'jail'. Smugglers are given time to get away and hide.
Coastguards have to catch all the smugglers and play ends when this is done. In the event of this not occurring (as it does frequently) points are made on the number of smugglers still remaining in jail at the end of a time limit. Smugglers, once the game has started, have the simple (or not so simple) task of remaining uncaught. Once captured they can only be released from jail by being touched by a Smuggler who is still free. Coastguards can use whatever technique they want to try and capture smugglers, eg. hunting as a pack, in pairs, or singularly (it is educational to find out which works best and why!). Capture is by touch (as in ‘Tag’). Once a coastguard has caught a smuggler, the smuggler must go back to jail (players showing any resistance or cheating can be expelled from the game for not playing fair!). Coastguards also have one trick that they can use to stop 'jail breaks’. They can appoint jailers, namely one or two coastguards that are left to hang around the jail. But it's worth while either limiting the number of jailers and/or only allowing jailers within a certain distance of the jail. This game is best played in wooded areas or bracken heaths where stealth and the opportunity to hide is available. It is very difficult to hide on a flat field with cut grass... but still possible.
A note on boredom
I once heard a comedian say that every child should spend at least one summer sitting on a wall, bored. Although this may sound a little extreme, some ignoring of the common summer catchphrase ‘I’m boooored’ has to be a good thing. Children have precious little time to themselves these days. They may try to hold you to ransom with the idea that they’ve got ‘nothing’ to do and that you’re somehow responsible for entertaining them, but don’t get sucked in. Boredom is the cauldron of imagination. Some grumpy stomping about or a post toddler tantrum will, if ignored, give way to some of the best play experiences your children will ever have. Summer is the ideal time for siblings of different ages to discover the spontaneous play that might be missing when they are on different routines during the rest of the year. Tell them to kick a ball, wash the car, build a castle or just stare into space for a while; you’re not giving them short shrift, but the gift of time.
Mel Tibbs lives in Dorset and is a full-time mother to Lucy, Ben and Theo.
The Big Summer Activity Book by Anne and Peter Thomas, Floris Books
Wildlife trusts wildlifetrusts.org
Agricultural shows asao.co.uk
First published in Issue 9 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.