I’m certainly not against screen time. In fact, I consider myself to be a tech-positive parent who is grateful for the role that gadgets and devices have played in our recent adventures in distance learning, as well as keeping my kids socializing with other people and occupied while I’ve been working.
But now that school is over and the weather is warm, I’m feeling the pull toward giving them more unplugged time, like Catherine McNeil, a mom of three outside Chicago. “I am so overwhelmed and exhausted by all the screen time my kids have been getting, that I really want to get my kids outdoors more this summer,” McNeil said.
There’s a reason parents are feeling this way: Kids need balance. Whitney Raglin Bignall, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, agrees. “Eating balanced meals, spending time outside, and socializing with friends all support a good mental-health balance in children. When some of those things are missing, parents need to be intentional about getting them in,” Bignall said.
However, with many day camps and overnight camps closed because of the pandemic, parents like me are struggling to manage work schedules while giving their kids the time outside and social interaction that they need.
Obviously, if you live in a virus hot-spot, have family members whose health is at risk, or don’t trust that your children will actually stay far enough away from a friend or two in these situations, these ideas are probably not for you. Make sure to do your own (intensive) risk assessment before you dive into anything.
But if you are confident your children’s outdoor time will be safe, here are five screen-free summer camp alternatives that I’ve been considering for my children. All the options are outdoors, not just because kids need fresh air and sunlight, but because we know being outdoors is a much safer option.
While these ideas may not necessarily give you the full day you’ve relied on in past years and allow you to get a full eight hours of work done, they offer a bit of structured and supervised outdoor time.
As you conduct your own risk-benefit analysis for your family and decide what the mask and social distancing guidelines would be, I hope these ideas inspire some good options for you.
1. Neighborhood Camp: A few of my 11-year-old daughter’s friends have decided to team up and offer a planned activity outside each day at their houses. From paint-by-number and Lego building, to chalk art and skateboarding, each parent is offering to host the four girls in their yard or neighborhood to give the others some respite.
2. Small day camp: Consider getting together with a couple of other families and hiring a local artist or musician to offer a small day camp in your yard, at a local park or even an unused parking lot. Think ukulele lessons, with kids sitting six feet apart. Or landscape painting with easels safely distanced. Julie Druzak, owner of Once Upon a Dream Princess Parties in Doylestown, Pa., is offering this. “I’ve spoken to so many parents who are looking for safe activities for their kids this summer, so I’m offering outdoor face-painting and activity camps at peoples’ homes for three to four kids — in their yard or even in their driveway, if I have to,” Druzak said. Druzak brings plastic sheets for the kids to paint on (not actual faces), as well as individual brushes.
3. Neighbor exchange camp: When my kids were little, we often did a date night babysitting exchange with another family in our neighborhood. They would come to our house and watch our kids for one evening a month while we went out, and then we would do the same for them. Instead of a once-a-month date night exchange, you could alternate days during the week, or if schedules allow, a week-on-week-off arrangement.
4. College-student camp: With so many college students home from school, many of whom left without the jobs they had originally been hired for this summer, they’re a fantastic resource for a makeshift “day camp” with just your kids, or combined with another family. Tap into the college students’ own interests and abilities, whether it’s a specific academic area, the arts or sports, and have them provide a structured morning or afternoon session for your kids where you live, which could also help with the inevitable summer brain drain.
5. Remote workspace camp: If you work from home but have a bit of flexibility, head out to a local green space and set up your work area (don’t forget your headphones) on a picnic table, or even just sit in your car, and hire a high school student as a parent’s helper to help entertain and corral your kids for a few hours outside on a daily basis. That’s essentially what my area’s fair-weather camp is, except with five kids vs. 50.
While these options might not replace the joys and conveniences of what would have been summer camp, as Roxanne Donovan, professor of psychological sciences and interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University, reminded me: “This pandemic presents a unique opportunity for parents to slow down and lower their expectations to work in the gray area of our usual all-or-nothing binary thinking.”
We may not all have the ability to give our kids the summer we wanted them to have — with our work schedules and the limitations on us because of the pandemic — but we can get creative in the ways we seek out those opportunities to give them what they need, within the best of our abilities, at a risk level with which we feel comfortable.
Kristen Chase is a writer, a mom of four and co-founder of Cool Mom Picks.
Sign up for the On Parenting newsletter here.