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We just got back from a quick trip to Grandma’s house for Spring Break, so it is time to start thinking about the next school break – summer! Depending on where you live, you may not have much time left to enroll your children in a summer program. When we lived in Boston, spaces in summer programs were often filling up in March, but here in Idaho we can sometimes wait until the week before the program starts. I have tried everything from hiring a nanny from Care.com, to a piece-meal of adventure-style camps, to the summer program run through the school. Here are some things that I look for in a summer program.

Unstructured time is precious

Even though my kids might not have the whole day to loaf about the house and yard at home, I want them to have unstructured time in their days. Time to read, play open-ended games with friends, or create a fort with boxes and chalk. When I look at the schedule for a summer program, I want to see open blocks of time when the children are free to explore in a rich environment. It is OK if that environment is off-site, daily trips to the local pool are an example, but I am wary of a scheduled packed full of adult-led activities. Our kids learn important problem-solving skills through unstructured play, and the American Association of Pediatrics reports that free, child-driven, creative play even protects against the effects of pressure and stress.

Keeping up with academics is key

Nobody wants to talk about doing work in the summer, but it is critical that children maintain and build on their skills and knowledge during the summer. Our brains are part of our bodies, and we know that if we as adults take 3 months off from the gym, we will have lost significant strength, power and speed. By not planning academics into your child’s summer routine, you are setting them up for some serious pain in the fall. I look for summer programs that integrate the academics into the structured activities, say practicing math tripling a recipe or teaching writing by staging a one-act play. I also integrate academics into our family routines.

Understand your own needs

Every family has its own quirks. Since my husband runs his business from home, a nanny is not the best summer solution for us. At the same time, it is important to me that my children are able to spend time together, so I look for a program where the activities are for a range of ages rather than banded by grade. 

What are some things that you look for in a summer program? Check back later to for tips on how to painlessly integrate academic practice into your own family’s daily schedule. 

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