In my childhood home, bored was a four-letter word – a bad word, if you will, and one we were forbidden from uttering in our house. "Go find something to do," my mother would say and send us off into the quiet of the house or the yard to figure out how to fill the time.
Downtime is when kids explore and create. It’s when they figure out who they are and what they’re good at, learn to manage time and resolve problems. Yet, what does a parent do when the kids are caterwauling about being bored? Should you indulge them by helping them fill their time? Not if you want them to benefit from brain-building freethinking time. Should you ignore them and tell them to fend for themselves? You could, but it’s tough to totally turn a deaf ear to their pleas.
We suggest adopting a middle ground approach. You provide the broad strokes for what to do and have them fill in the details – expanding their minds, their knowledge and their summer fun. Here are seven super ideas to do just that.
1. Down and dirty
You know something that today’s kids don’t spend nearly enough time doing? Getting filthy and sweaty. That’s right. Surprise them by suggesting that they spend a few hours doing stuff that’s filthy fun – dig for worms or weed the garden. Heck, if you’ve got a bare area on your lawn, have them hose it down to make a muddy patch, then slip around in it in their swimsuits.
Encourage your children to think of their own ideas – safe, fun things they can do that will get them sweaty and dirty. Make a game of it and tell them that they’ll get a reward (a trip to the public pool or an ice cream outing) if they get good and grubby. (Note to fastidious parents: Relax! You can create all sorts of boundaries, so they don’t mess up your house.)
2. Cooking connection
Summer is a wonderful time for making easy, yummy and healthy foods with the kids. There are a slew of salads, cold soups and other delectable dishes that are a cinch for kids to plan and make on their own – or mostly on their own.
Buy a kids’ recipe book or search for a few kids recipes websites, and have your child search for a dish or two that appeals to them. Have them write a list of ingredients and compare it to what you have in the fridge; then, add their ingredients to the weekly shopping list. Give them a designated cooking day and the tools they need to complete the kid-friendly dish.
This can be something they do every week to build up a repertoire of recipes. Expand the project by having them create their own summer cookbook or recipe box. Let them decide what style they prefer – and how they decorate it.
3. Create a neighborhood treasure hunt
Have your children tap into their inner Jack Sparrow by creating a treasure hunting adventure. First, suggest they gather some "junk" from the house, things you’d put in a garage sale and are small enough to bury easily. Then, they should get a lay of the land (your block) and scout for places to hide their treasures. They should keep track of everything they hid and where they put it. Next, they should create a cool, colorful treasure map, with X’s to mark the spots. Have a friend or sibling or even you use the map to uncover the loot.
4. Unplugged challenge
Here’s a concept that will probably make your kids kick and scream. Tell them that if they’re so bored with all the tools and gizmos they have (phones, computers, TV, video games), they clearly don’t need them. Ha! How’s that for turning their boredom chants back on them? Challenge them to spend a day abstaining from all electronic devices.
Make sure they have lots of books, crafting materials and access to the outdoors – basically, unplugged options to fill their time. They could read a book or two (depending on how long), write a story, build a fort or go bird watching. Let this be an opportunity for them to really decide how they are going to fill their day, as long as it’s safe. Maybe add a reward, like going to an evening show at the movie.
5. Disassemble day
You know that VCR that conked out or the landline phone you no longer use? Well, what was once destined for a landfill can be a cool project for your caged up kids.
Have them hunt down obsolete electronics in your house (make sure they pass their finds by you to be sure it’s something no longer needed). Then, provide them with screwdrivers of various sizes. Have them sit at a table and disassemble the device, keeping track of each part.
See if they can put it back together after they’ve got it fully disassembled. If not, suggest they create something new out of the parts. A super fly robot perhaps? A kooky car? Let their imaginations take flight.
6. Subject submersion
In school, kids don’t get much of a chance anymore to just dig down into a subject. When they’re learning about the American Revolution, it’s at a breakneck pace with little time to pause to delve into the biography of Colonel William Prescott, for instance. Summer is the perfect time for luxurious exploration into a topic that tickles or interests them.
If your child has a passion for insects, encourage her to submerge herself in the subject. How many varieties of butterflies are there? And what is their purpose in the ecosystem? These and so many other curiosities can be sated in summer. Plus, kids can get creative – making art projects and more inspired by their discoveries. Reward their efforts with a trip related to their passionate pursuit. A trip to the bookstore for a special title or a visit to the Butterfly Garden at the Detroit Zoo.
7. Mission make-it
First thing’s first: If you don’t have a hodge-podge box for your kids, start one. What’s a hodge-podge box, you may ask? Well, it’s a box where you throw bits and pieces of household junk that could be used for art or building projects. Think: bottle caps, milk jugs, toilet paper rolls, old floppy discs and basically anything else that may make a nifty ingredient in a found-object project.
If you don’t already have a hodge-podge box, no worries. Give your kids the task of starting one. From there, any time they claim to be bored, you can send them to their box with a mission: Create a mad scientist, something that reminds you of summer, a junkyard version of your sister. Kids can augment their creations using construction paper, paint and other supplies in their art kits.