Summer can be stuffed with days that your kids will never forget and you will never regret. Simple, free ( or cheap! ) and designed to create a flow of magic summer memories, the following list contains my best ideas for every summer with my four kids, and hopefully your best summer with yours.
1. Start with a soundtrack. In the car and home, having one or two CD's of music that play off and on all summer layers the summer experience for your children -- it is a way of sealing experience into memory that gives it an added layer of texture: sound. Music. Pick a type of music that maybe you haven't listened to often or at all. We've done bluegrass, swing, French pop, Michael Jackson (his own catagory), and this summer we are listening to Starbucks New Orleans blues jam at home, and in the car a Disney song CD that has classical music as its underlying presence, layered with Disney voices singing random songs (not from Disney movies) like "Your Library" -- a song that completely delights me and has even hooked Lola and Emily, who are 10. To a thundering string section we hear "how far away is Neptune? / just what is a blue moon? / What did famous men say? / anything they said you'll find it here! / your library! / something to rely apon! / your library! / take a tip from Ludwig Von!" What is important is the repetition: the music must be played often and all summer, to seal the summer light, heat and laughter inside of it, to be released for the rest of their lives when they hear it play or remember the sound.
2. Find water. Enter. Repeat. The summer must include water play. Living in Southern California, we have access to beaches all year long, but nothing compares to the summer experience of a blistering hot day, the smell of sunblock, brightly colored towels, shouting, splashing, the feel of cold water against your skin, burning your feet on concrete, stuffing your face after swimming. Swimming has a particularly wonderful effect on children, both energizing and exhausting them, and even the most timid swimmer finds joy sitting in a foot of cold water and flexing their toes. Eating after swimming is incredibly wonderful, food tastes better and you are inevitably starving. Sitting in the kitchen wrapped in a towel, music playing quietly while eating black bean burritos with avocado and cheese, my kids are blissed out. We use the complex pool, but before we had one we used the community pool, and when we didn't use that we had a Wal-Mart plastic pool and a slip and slide out front on the lawn. All are awesome.
3. Surround them with books. A few times a week I load whatever kids are on hand and head toward Barnes and Noble. We go in the middle of the afternoon when it is blazing hot and after we've eaten lunch, and enter the air conditioned book sanctuary with a sigh. I order hot coffee, the older kids maybe have a cookie, maybe not, and I follow Ever around in the kid section while the other children browse and read. We usually end up staying for hours. Every now and then I squat and read Ever a book, but at 18 months she usually only follows along to one or two before she's ready to move. After a while, I hold a book or magazine in hand and read while following Ever. Sometimes at the end, Lola watches Ever while I browse. The books smell delicious, like nothing else. The effect of being surrounded with books is also like nothing else: an entire corniaopia of ideas, worlds, thoughts, experiences, hope, despair, hilarity, adventure, discovery, science, every fascinating thing you can think of is packaged and piled on the floor, on bookshelves and countertops. Whatever Lola is interested in, I find a book on it and drop it off with her casually "you might like this..." Last year she read a ton about sharks and Helen Keller. Dakota used to read animae, Calvin and Hobbes and books on dragons. Ian loved anything about old wars, guns and ninjas. Sometimes a child will find a book that sparks an interest they never even knew they had, and they will cry when you have to leave. (OK, so that last part isn't so amazing.) At home, we have books for adults and kids in every room, bookshelves in every room, and making quiet time almost every day where the groan "nothing to do" can be met with "find a book" is important. Boredom is the precursor to a lot of exploration, imagination and delving into things otherwise left alone. I also pick a few books to read out loud to my kids every summer. Right now I'm reading Bambi to Lola (and Ever by default).
4. Do nothing. Time to drift, to imagine, where the T.V. and computer and pads of I's are not allowed. Time where "what should I doooo?" is met with a SUPER ANNOYING shrug from Mom. Time where the house is quiet and maybe the baby is sleeping and the kids find themselves lying on their backs staring at the ceiling in total silence, after Mom threatens to ground them from T.V. if they ask again to watch it. This is good. This is very good. Make sure there are pockets of this every day. This is the time when, as a child, I created a newspaper/newsletter that I ended up working on for a few months. This is when I wrote poetry, journaled, made elaborate worlds for potato bugs, took naps I didn't know I needed, prayed, found corners of my yard that were perfect for playing fairies and dressed up my dogs. This is the time when a child's mind finds more deeply and profoundly what the world is to them without any interference. It is when spirituality, creativity, intellectual curiosity and self control can be navigated.
5. Spend lots of time in nature. Sit underneath bushes and push toes in dirt. Climb trees. Take hikes, slow and watchful, fast and exhaustive. Crash through waves at the beach, hunt for sand crabs. Swim in a lake. A relationship with the wild is one of the most important aspects of life I hope to pass on to my children -- nature is all of our church, is the true universal language. I myself have a particular affinity for trees and lakes, out of all of nature's offerings; spending time at Lake Zaca at my girlfriends's wedding was restorative for all of us. Watching Ever and Lola waddle around the edge of the lake, getting muddy and falling, rolling strange objects in their hands, looking through the long grasses, I was reminded of how powerfully nature absorbs us. The look of intent on Ever's face when observing a fly, the lengths she went to track it and the absorption with which she followed it's flight was beautiful. This is the opposite of ADD. Nature is healing for our souls and our physical bodies, and I want my children to have an instinct to seek out nature when they are lost in life, and when they need to reconnect with peace and acceptance, and to use their bodies the way our bodies were meant to be used when created. Moving amongst the world. Spending plenty of times out doors in the wild means that our children will care more about what happens to our planet, and it is easier for them to understand the environmentally concerned choices that we are making at home. Every summer I take my children hiking, to the beach, the local lake and the local park which has a stream and plenty of trees, birds, small fish and water plants.
6. Watch foreign films and documentaries and amazing animation. We have developed a rhythm where the summer is a time of more experimental fare for viewing. While we watch foreign films and documentaries the rest of the year also, it's nothing like the ratio of summer viewing. Over the summer the T.V. is generally not allowed on until the evening, and then we scroll through the On Demand, after a long day of summering. We are tired and cozy and fed, and I cuddle up Lola while Ever drifts off. During the school year Lola is allowed T.V. at 7:00 p.m., and usually watches Disney channel for an hour. Filling the summer with more exotic filmmaking gives the summer itself a more exotic feel; it helps highlight summertime as a special place of magic, where girls speak fluent French and teach in Germany, or we learn how a tiger protects her young in the wild. Last weekend Lola and I watched The Hedgehog, a French film based on the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The narrator is an 11-year-old girl who reminded me physically quite a bit of Lola, and is only a year older. The story is a dark, but in my house this is all right, as long as certain perameters exist, which they did in this movie. We had a wonderful talk about life and death and French girls and history after the movie. Oftentimes these movies provoke questions that can be answered later that week at a trip to B&N, where we find a book to tell us what we want to know. It's good for children to have to follow along while reading the dialogue, even if they miss some or get lost at points. It's a good study of human behavior to see how much they understand of what is going on even without the "explanation." Usually they follow right along even if they miss a few lines. I ask a lot of leading questions, to help their imaginations and logic come together and lead them to conclusions, or better questions!*
7. Make a big ole awesome craft. Now I am close to the least crafty person in the world. While I love a good collage, that is as far as my crafty instincts go. But still, every summer I tackle one or two really cool crafty projects with my kids. This summer we are building a giant cardboard castle. Not only does it provide a time to work together as a team, it creates another dimension to the summer, a 3-D cardboard pop-out that comes to mind when the kids remember summertime.
8. Explore your neighborhood and city. Maybe you don't have gas money to go all over the place every day -- we don't. But we can visit the park ten minutes away that we've never been to, or go once to the nickel arcade, trapse through the pet store we've never been in that has all the huge snakes or spend an afternoon in the library one town over. Learning to be curious about the world around you can start with actually taking time to visit that world. Kids only get to go where you take them!
9. Have your child set a goal and accomplish it by summer's end. Summertime is ready made for goal setting -- a tidy chunk of time in which many things can be accomplished. Lola desperately wants an iPad, which we can.not.afford no way, no how. But we can help her to earn money. She made blocks of frozen treats that are currently filling the freezer and will be sold, and is spending some time at her grandma's working to earn money. Her friend in the complex is also working with her, and they will share the iPad on a schedule and agreement they've come up with my help. Not only is this awesome for self motivation and confidence, it slowly and non-threateningly builds independence.
10. Make magic. Be ridiculous, creative, silly, boldly magical. We hung a fairy banner we already owned on the front porch, spray our hair colors, go on mud hikes, play shaving cream in the bathtub, dance half naked in the kitchen, paint our nails, stay up half the night talking (last night!), make cookies and watch a movie, eat dinner outside often, compete for weirdest dance move, whatever we can think of. I try to let joy loose on a regular basis. It's the best magic I know.
This post first appeared on Flux Capacitor summer 2012.