As my college students used to say, “Back in the olden days—you know, like when you were a kid. . . .” Well, back then there was no such thing as daycare and very little summer camp. Those of my friends who actually went to summer camp (other than a week-long Brownie Scout “day camp”) were either envied or, more likely, pitied. Those of us who were “stuck at home” considered ourselves God’s Chosen People. Why, we could roam the world pretty much from right after breakfast until noon when we reluctantly came in for lunch, and again from after lunch until the streetlights came on each evening. We rode bikes, played a variety of games involving balls, played in the water hose, and generally ran wild. Our mothers knew where we were by following the noise—or the neighborhood dogs—but, by-and-large, no one worried about us because there was nothing to worry about.
Today, sadly, that is not the case. Mothers in the workplace accounts for some of that. In the dear, dead olden days (known as the 1950’s), mothers were almost always home all day. The world was less scary, too. We cannot assume all the neighbors are looking out for all the children and have their best interest at heart. Yet, there are still some mothers (and often grandmothers) who are home all summer with children. Camp Grandma is still in business. But what do you do with children home all day in a digital, play date world? How do you keep kids engaged and busy and not let them get brain dead watching TV?
The good news is that it’s easier than you think. It takes a little planning and thinking ahead, but the answer may be to take some hints out of that 1950’s playbook. Even if there isn’t a whole tribe of kiddos ready to play in your neighborhood, and you can’t let the children run loose, there is still some wisdom to be gleaned from the stuff our moms did long, long ago.
First of all, there is the public library. It’s open during the heat of the day, it’s air conditioned, and it has endless resources. Of course there are books, and the helpful librarian in the Children’s Department can guide you to some old and new favorites. For us grandmothers who haven’t read with or to a child in a few years, it’s good to know that some old standards are still popular. Madeleine L’Engle’s time travel books (including Newbery winner A Wrinkle in Time) and her “Austin family” books are wonderful read-alouds as well as great books for independent readers. Rick Riordan’s new books featuring the gods of Greek and Roman myth are exciting and very well written. For new readers or about-to-be readers, check out picture books. You can spend an entire afternoon with Mercer Mayer’s “boy, dog, frog” wordless books. Letting the child make up the story as you explore Mayer’s drawings together is all the fun. And if your children love Dr. Seuss’s Horton, introduce them to Jean DeBrunhoff’s Babar the Elephant King and his Queen Celeste.
The best investment for a summer’s play is the biggest box of crayons you can find and a newsprint sketchpad. Coloring books have a place, but the world inside a child’s head can only be set free with a sheet of plain paper and a crayon. “Read” Harold and the Purple Crayon (another wordless adventure), then grab a crayon and imagine together. (Hey, I like to color! Don’t you?) Other imagination invitations are those “perfect” toys: Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinker Toys, and plain old building blocks.
Plant a garden and eat the results. Children like to cook, and some easy dishes won’t tax your patience too much. Even just making their own PB&J can be fun, and kids tend to eat the things they create. Or make home made play dough—there are lots and lots of recipes on the Internet. (Some are for no-bake if your little person is too little for stovetop cooking.) The nice thing about taking the trouble to make it instead of buying it—home made play clay is cheap, so you can reasonably pitch it when it gets yucky.
Studies show that many children lose what they learned over the summer because they don’t use it, so try cross word and word search puzzles. Math is fun if it solves a puzzle, and it’s not cheating to look up answers to cross word puzzles if you’re a kid. (It is also a sneaky way to teach kids to use dictionaries and even Internet sources. Wikipedia might not pass muster for a term paper resource, but it’s cool for finding the answers to cross words.)
Yahtzee, Boggle, and even Scrabble are also sneaky teachers; they’re fun, but you have to learn to spell or add.
If you can’t face another game of checkers, turn the board over, reach for a Hoyle’s Rules of Games and learn to play backgammon. It’s easier than chess, but it requires some strategy and counting skills. Ditto cribbage and Battleship. Dominoes is also a good game to teach counting and strategy—and the kid who finally beats Grandpa is the proudest kid on earth!
If things get digital, there are free versions of many of these games on-line, and low-cost versions of some of the name brand games. If you are a truly sneaky adult, you will visit a bit with your friend the librarian and link movie watching to books (reading first). Many books for young readers can be found in down-loadable formats and libraries have books on tape or CD’s that everyone can enjoy together.
One of my friends, a very educated man, spends many a long evening making gift sacks. He takes plain brown gift bags (cheap at craft stores) and cuts out pictures from old magazines. His favorites are flowers and nature pictures—but everyone to his/her own—kids might like using colored comics. He glues these onto the brown bags with plain white school glue (he covers his bags pretty solidly). Allowed to dry, they fold up and stack nicely waiting for a gift emergency.
None of this costs much. Dollar stores are a great resource as are thrift stores. Some of the raw materials for these ideas you already have hiding in a closet or the recycling bin.
And did I mention Jacks? Or Pick-up Sticks? Some of the games “no one plays anymore” can be fascinating to a child for whom they are a brand new idea. And when push comes to shove, you can always turn on the hose!
Betty Kay Seibt, PhD