I woke up a few days ago to my 3rd annual oh-my-gosh-my-kids-are-out-of-school-this-week panic attack. As my eyes fluttered open to the image of my anxiety-ridden face in the mirrored closet doors, I thought, “Groovy hair.” Then I thought, “We have to do summer differently this year.”
I love summer. I love having my kids home and having lots of time to play. I love having two and a half guilt-free months when it doesn’t matter that we go to bed at 10:30.
Here’s the catch. Each summer I have such high hopes for making summer our yearly Nirvana—our perfect fusion of structure and fun—that when August hits I feel like screaming. We did a little too much of nothing. We DID NOT learn how to speak Spanish. We DID NOT do our Summer Bridge activities every day. We DID NOT do math flash cards. And while part of me realizes that all of this is OK, and while I realize that it’s often in the unplanned moments that magic happens, I also understand that in order for the unplanned moments to have special meaning, we have to have some semblance of routine.
During the school year, we rock at routine. We have wake up time and school time and play time and dinner time and bedtime (at 10:30). Having a weekday routine makes just hanging out on Saturday morning positively delightful. But in the summer, all the rules change. When have to create our own routine, it too often evolves into WHATEVER (i.e. TV, TV and more TV). So, I’m making a summer resolution and trying an experiment this year. At the end of it all, I’ll let you know how it goes and would love to hear from any of you that have tried the experiment as well. To create a workable routine and ensure that we do at least some of the things we really want to, we’re going to apply See It. Map It. Do It.© and S.T.A.C.K.S.© to time. (For a more detailed explanation of these systems, see my January 2007 article.)
One of the easiest ways to do the See It and Map It steps for your summer schedule is to call a family meeting. At our family meeting I asked my daughters what they’ve liked about past summers and what they haven’t. Sarah loves staying up late and getting up late. She DOES NOT like me working. At all. Ever. Hannah doesn’t really like anything about summer because she says we don’t do anything. Ouch. This is important information, however, because without knowing where we are in relation to summer family time, I can’t know what needs to change to meet our needs. As you take your own inventory of what works and what doesn’t about summer at your house, you will be better equipped to make any necessary changes.
“So. What do you WANT this summer to be like?” I asked. Sarah is cool with staying up late and getting up late. Hannah wants to actually DO something this year. And so would I. I’ve realized that our previous attempts at non-stop leisure make me crazy, so I want to create a more effective framework that allows our leisure to be supported by our structure. We have lots of vacations and family fun time planned this year. We also have great expectations of chapter books and math flash cards and made beds and clean laundry. So we brainstormed a list of all the things that make up summer, from vacations to ice skating to getting Sarah’s tonsils out to exactly when I’m going to work. We have an enormously long list. You will likely have a long one, too. You may choose to construct your list over the course of a day or two so you can get as much down as possible. This will be your working piece for Do It.
Once you have your brainstorm list, you can sort your activities into categories. There are a couple of effective ways to do this: you can categorize by type of activity (e.g. education, recreation, home maintenance) or by frequency (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly). When you can see what types of activities you’ve listed and know how many of each type you have, you will be better able to balance your time.
If your list looks anything like ours, there are about a billion things on it. We have to get rid of a few things. Remember that in this step you are making conscious choices about which activities matter most to you and your family. After you’ve chosen which activities you want most to do, you will take it to the next level of prioritizing with Assign.
Here’s where the structure happens. Now that you have your activity list whittled down, decide when you are going to do each thing and which ones really matter most so you can put them into your schedule first. You can break your summer into daily, weekly and monthly zones. For example, one of our daily activities is to take a walk in the evening. One of our weekly activities is to have a picnic lunch at the park. One of our monthly activities is to read a chapter book.
As you assign activities to your calendar, remember that it’s summer and build in plenty of time for each item. Take advantage of the opportunity to SLOW DOWN! Also make sure that you leave open space in your days, weeks and months so you can do some shifting if other events come up.
As a challenge, I encourage you to take some personal time every day so that you can better meet the demands of this more intense parenting time. I also encourage you to build in some quiet time for your children. Remember that summer is about fun, not about frenzy!
Choose a calendar in a public spot in your home to write down your schedule. You may already have a wall calendar you are using. If you don’t and would like a customized calendar, I highly recommend Broderbund’s Calendar Creator (www.broderbund.com). With Calendar Creator, you can create your own calendar, complete with holidays, birthdays, vacations, etc. and save it in a digital format. I print ours, take it to Kinko’s, and have it enlarged to a 2’ x 3’ size. We hang it in the kitchen and each have a color to write down our activities. We also have a family color to note all of our family events. Our color-coding along with the calendar’s accessibility helps contribute to successful scheduling.
Keep It Up
Over the course of the next few weeks, periodically review your schedule and determine whether you’re accomplishing the goals you’ve set. I share a mantra with a good friend: “It’s OK to change your mind.” If something isn’t working or you just don’t like the way things are going, make a change! If you find your schedule is too packed, assess what you can let go. If you have WAY too much time on your hands, consider adding another goal or two.
Keep it up is essential particularly because our lives are not static. Notwithstanding your exhaustive brainstorm list, things will come up. As you take time to reassess your situation, you will be able to maintain a workable schedule. We review the calendar every week during family planning time which makes it easier for us to stay apprised of each other’s comings and goings.
Over the course of the past six months, I have read several articles touting the benefits of unstructured play time for children. As painful as boredom is at first, for both parents and children, it’s nice to have permission to have periods of nothing. No TV. No Xbox. No computer. You’ve probably noticed that when kids are left to their own devices, they are very creative.
Karen MacPherson, a writer from the Washington Post-Gazette, wrote a three-part series on the benefits of unstructured play. Her analysis is both fascinating and sobering, and I encourage you to read the series if you’re interested. She quotes Alvin Rosenfeld, a child psychiatrist who is co-author, with Nicole Wise, of The Over-Scheduled Child, who says, "Parents worry about kids’ boredom, so they schedule their lives to keep them busy. But empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness."
My greatest hope, for your family and for mine, is that by creating a stellar synthesis of structure and leisure using See It. Map It. Do It.© and S.T.A.C.K.S.©, we will find an abundance of the happy magic found in open hours. And when August comes this year, I hope we’ll all be smiling instead of screaming. :)