Play, rewards, and planning for an emotionally healthy summer

As a former teacher, I know that the summer holidays can be an exciting time for children. They have six weeks away from the routine of school and the prospect of a lot more freedom lies before them. And while the summer is a fantastic time for families to spend time together, it can also present new pressures and worries to parents and children alike.

For some children, a shift from the everyday school routine can be unsettling, and the uncertainty of what the summer may bring is a worry. For parents, there is sometimes the added pressure around child care responsibilities and taking time off work, not to mention finding activities to occupy children over the summer weeks.

When you’re out of your routine and expectations are a bit wobbly, there’s a much higher chance of children feeling frustrated and acting out because of those feelings, or sometimes just because of boredom. And with this comes a higher chance for parents to feel stressed. These are all legitimate issues for lots of families which can put strain on our relationships with our children and have a negative impact on our own wellbeing. But all too often these challenges are overlooked.

It may seem like a daunting task to prevent these issues arising, however there are plenty simple of ways you can plan ahead to look after your own wellbeing, and that of your children. These strategies can help to make the summer holidays calm and fun, and support a smoother return to school come autumn.

One straightforward way to prevent anxieties rising is to talk about what’s coming up with your children. Find out what their expectations and feelings are, so the summer isn’t an unspoken vacuum looming in the future. You can also set a plan for different activities, such as going for a walk in nature, going to the playground or seeing a school friend. For older children or teenagers, supporting them in a new responsibility like helping around the house or volunteering for a week is also a fantastic way for kids to be occupied, have fun and develop skills.

Another simple strategy that can calm uncertainties is to have a family reward system that gives everyone an opportunity to reward each other for simple things, like being kind to eachother, helping out around the house, or coming up with ideas of things to do together. Using a reward system like this can also give structure for children to work towards a shared, whole-family reward, like going for an ice cream or to the park.

As important as it is to add structure, I also firmly believe the summer is a fantastic opportunity for children to be more free, creative and inventive. We tend to think kids are ‘just playing’ and often we don’t place enough importance on play. But if we really foster it and encourage free and independent play, our children can develop and learn. And in fact it is when adults leave them to it, that children can really flourish. I love playing with my nephew and godchildren, but it’s truly amazing to see them lead their own play and see them learning those social and emotional skills independently.

There’s a quote that I always think of from the psychologist Lev Vygotsky which says, “In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behaviour; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself”, and I believe this is absolutely right. I remember inventing games as a child myself and how much I learned not only about myself, but also about friendships and sorting out disagreements with my friends. Allowing kids to play in this way develops them socially and emotionally in a way that can’t be achieved in a more rigid environment.

So with a little planning, a family reward system to work towards, freedom to play, and talking with your children about their hopes and expectations for summer, I believe you get a recipe for a calmer summer and kids who’re ready for the new school term.

(Also posted on the PTA UK website)