FRANKLIN, MASS. — As the final countdown to summer vacation begins, children are getting frisky with excitement. For the parents of these exuberant youngsters, however, a feeling just short of panic may be setting in. Sure, there will be swimming lessons, a family reunion or two, and trips to the zoo, but what on earth are the kids going to do in between?
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," says Paula Davis, mother of two girls, ages 6 and 4. "I don't want to 'entertain' them all the time, but I do want to provide them with outlets to keep them busy."
The temptation for some parents may be to purchase lots of toys or overschedule their children's days with programs and organized activities. But summertime, child-care experts say, should be an opportunity for kids to be "fully and freely young," to have large blocks of unstructured playtime where they can explore - and learn in the process.
"As adults, we tend to feel we know best what children need and that we need to organize them more," says Marlene Hefferman, director of Dean College Children's Center in Franklin, Mass. She tells the story of a father who spent days building a model train board for his young son, constructing all the tracks and buildings by hand. The son played with it a few times and then lost all interest.
"It makes a difference whose idea it is," she cautions. Children have powerful imaginations and natural ability to entertain themselves if they are presented with the right opportunities, Mrs. Hefferman says. "Put out a big bucket of water next to the backyard sandbox, add a few interesting accessories like a cooking sieve, step back, and watch what happens."
This type of creative, open-ended play is more likely to keep children busy for long periods of time than expensive toys or adult-directed activities.
That is why boxes of all sizes are attractive to kids, says Tom McMahon, a child-care columnist and professor of psychology at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif. A fancy toy is just one thing to a child, "but the box it came in can be many different things - a truck or car or doll's bed."
Mr. McMahon set up his backpacking tent for his two children in the backyard. "I didn't see them for hours," he says, because they were so busy playing bears and other imaginative roles. "You simply give them ideas with a prop and they take off with it."
The parents' role, says Hefferman, is to set up opportunities for spontaneous play, to be a "sounding board and remind them of the possibilities."
She remembers her own children organizing a Fourth of July parade in their neighborhood. The planning was half the fun. The negotiating, decisionmaking, and brainstorming it required made it a valuable learning process for her kids, she says. "Creative play is the key to intellectual growth of children."
A rainy-day hit with Mrs. Davis's children is their arts and crafts box. She keeps a 20-gallon plastic container full of paper, glue, egg cartons, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, and other odds and ends. "They can do project after project for hours," she says.
Another mom saved all her used wrapping paper and let her boys (ages 2 and 4) wrap up their toys and then play "birthday party" for an hour opening all the "presents," says McMahon. (He has amassed dozens of creative play ideas for kids in his forthcoming "Kid Tips," published by Pocket Books.)
The key from the outset is "getting the child to feel more in charge of their choices" instead of placing that burden solely on the parent, says Hefferman. "You don't want to allow them more decisionmaking than their age can handle, but you also don't want to underestimate their ability."
Kelly Geagan in Watertown, Mass., has an 11-year-old boy who is not into sports as much as other kids his age. "But if I'd give him a hammer and a nail - he'd build something," she says. Last summer, she gave him leftover pieces of wood from a deck she and her husband had built. He nailed them together, painted them, and turned them into houses and police stations for his favorite HotWheels cars.
Hefferman also recommends establishing a reasonably consistent routine for each day. This should include indoor time, outdoor play, nap or quiet periods, and "alone" time for children to read or reflect. Children like the security of knowing "what comes next," she says. Encourage them to plan ahead what they want to do after lunch, for instance. "They will need an adult's guidance to get started. But when it's clear to them that 'Yes, you will fill this time,' then they usually do."
Tips for Perking Up Those Little Imaginations
From Tom McMahon's "It Works for Us!" (1993), soon to be re-released as "Kid Tips" (Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster Inc.)
Collect unopened junk mail in a shoe box. Kids have fun opening and examining it, cutting out pictures and hunting for stickers. Some mail contains forms for filling in name and address - great practice for older children.
Make a water-balloon yo-yo. Put just a little water in a slightly inflated balloon. Tie a 10-inch length of rubber band-type cord to it with a finger loop at one end. A big hit with all ages.
From Paula Davis, mother of a six- and a four-year-old, Franklin, Mass.
Play post office. Buy a cheap metal mailbox (or have kids make their own out of cardboard) for each child to have in her room. Save up scrap paper and scrap envelopes. Siblings will have fun making cards or silly notes to "mail" to each other. They love getting special messages or surprise packages from parents, too.
Turn garage into play area. Move the car out and let the kids set up an activity, like a mock schoolroom. Mrs. Davis suggests painting a portion of the garage wall with Crayola's Chalkboard Paint, which looks, feels, and erases like a real slate board.
From Marlene Hefferman, director, Dean College Children's Center, Franklin, Mass.
Frolic in water, moving water especially. Use buckets, water tables, hoses, bubblers, sprinklers, homemade water slides. Don't forget playing in the rain.
Publish a neighborhood newsletter. Older children can interview friends and their families and write up bits of news such as Little League scores, birthday reminders, recipes, jokes, and interesting family affairs.
From The Well-Centered Child (newsletter, Willow Tree Publications, Naperville, Ill.)
Make an ant farm. Place a clear plastic jar inside a slightly larger one and fill the space between them with dirt. Add ants. Cover by fastening a cloth over the top with a rubber band. Every few days put cookie crumbs on top of dirt. In about a week, kids will see tunnels.
Think of different ways to draw outside without crayons or paper. A stone on sidewalk, a twig in dirt, fingers in wet sand....