I am writing this article in silence, thanks to my kids' 7 pm bedtime. And tonight is the last early bedtime night because – sob! – tomorrow is the final day of school.
While I love my children, I admit to some qualms about summer vacation. How do I keep them entertained (that means out of trouble)? How do I keep the lid on my grocery budget? (Last summer, I felt like the refrigerator door was open every time I walked into the kitchen.) Which inexpensive (free, preferably) activities can we find? And how am I going to work from home with these two little distractions?
So picture me planning every minute of my last free day and periodically wiping my sweaty palms and taking deep breaths.
Entertained, but still learning
Even though I am scared for all the reasons I mentioned above, I have big ideas for this summer. First, you know, I want the kids to avoid summer brain drain. But it's got to be inexpensive and, ideally, incorporated into real life so the kids don't know they're still learning.
1. The Kitchen. The kitchen is a great place to practice skills. Both my kids enjoy helping me in the kitchen, so I plan to talk about doubling or tripling recipes, fractions, estimating volume measurements, and calculating the least expensive food options. We'll probably even do a few experiments in the kitchen. These activities should not add anything to our budget since we have to eat anyway.
I think a lot of refrigerator-opening has to do with boredom, so — in the interest of keeping my food budget (and boredom food consumption) under control — I am considering having designated snack/meal times. Otherwise, the kitchen is closed.
2. Writing/Reading. My daughter is learning to read and write sentences, and her teacher said that she should practice writing and sounding out words ten minutes every day. I have some partially used notebooks and markers/crayons left over from the school year that she has already put in her desk at home. Another essentially free activity that she enjoys. Of course, most of her notes involve who is/is not allowed in her room, but we have to start somewhere!
Each evening, I read aloud from chapter books for about 30 minutes before bedtime. The kids love this, and it offers a great opportunity to talk about history, vocabulary, and culture. We will definitely be continuing this tradition for as long as the kids are willing. Jim Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook gives some fantastic reviews on books that make great books to read aloud to your kids.
And you know the frugal place to get books, right? The library, of course. But more than offering free books, the libraries have summer reading programs. Our library offers prizes for meeting reading goals as well as other activities like inflatables, pool parties, and other presentations. And the best thing is it's all free!
Almost every day, we will have reading/quiet time after lunch. For half an hour, the kids look at (or read) books/magazines. It gives me some quiet time to get work done, calms them down, and gets them reading! And once again, it's free if you use books you already have or get books from the library.
3. Crafts/Art. Pinterest is the place to get crafty ideas! I have a drawer stashed with pipe cleaners, tissue paper, finger paints, glue sticks, and more that the kids can use anytime. Last summer, we did have a dedicated craft day, too, where the kids picked one thing to do each time. But crafts extend outdoors, too. My kids love drawing on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, as one example. You can even make your own sidewalk chalk!
4. Take things outside. We have four acres of pasture, trees, and a barn where the kids can run off energy. They make “forts” in our evergreen trees, and make corrals out of sticks and stones. While you may not have a playground in your backyard, most parks are free and offer plenty of space to run, discover new insects and trees, and generally avoid Nature Deficit Disorder. Also, don't overlook the summer youth programs that many parks run. While these programs generally aren't free, they are usually inexpensive. For instance, a park in my local area has an Eco-Adventures day camp that runs for one day per week for six weeks and is $35/child.
5. School camps. My kids' school got a grant for the summer. For three mornings a week for five glorious weeks, my kids will go back to school and travel the world through a new program that a couple of the teachers are running. The students will go to the library, do crafts, physical activity, and learn about other countries. And it's free!
6. Daycare decisions. Now that I work strictly from home, I don't technically need to send my children to daycare. However, for parents who are working and have school-age children, summer daycare can be a budget buster.
Finding a responsible, high school student to watch your kids may be a frugal option. Day camps may also be less expensive than sending your child to a traditional day care.
While I don't need daycare, I still worry about how I will meet my work obligations with more distractions. One way to combat this is that one friend and I are exchanging babysitting. One day, she watches my kids. Then, next time, I watch her kids. I don't get anything done on the days that I have all the kids, but I can get a lot done in the eight hours that I am kid-free! This babysitting swap doesn't cost us a thing.
Otherwise, I will have to do some work while the kids are in bed and sometimes, they will just have to learn to leave me alone while I work.
Do you dread summer vacation too? What frugal ways have you found to thrive during summer vacation?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).