The prospect of letting last school year go, at long last, brought me sovereign joy — by June, my kids and I were finished with the weekly routine anyway. Still, summer loomed ahead with its sunburns and sprawling daylight hours to fill, its expectations of renewal and warmth.

Normally, I’d stock July and August weekdays with child care and day camp. I’d keep my three kids out of the house — like calling adult swim at a public pool — giving myself time and space to dive into my freelance work. This year, however, things have changed. These next few months will be my first as a separated-but-still-married parent, so this summer holds particular weight for my family. Rather than taking my normal approach, I’ll be focused on spending more time with my kids, not less.

I come from a family that gives a formal name to any organized group activity — doing so bestows some legitimacy beyond the frippery of an idea. It follows then that I had to have a name for my summer concept. At first, I tried calling it “Mom Camp,” but when my kids flatly refused to go, I took a different tactic. Forget the name. I sat down with them one evening over Popsicles. What would a week of camp at home look like to them, I asked?

They stared at me. Camp? At home?

“Why?” said one blankly, eyes wide.

“That makes no sense,” said another.

I pressed on, encouraging them to think of everything they might like to do, together, with me. My son picked up a black crayon and scrawled a shortlist onto a wedge of construction paper:

  1. Visit Harry Potter Werld [sic]
  2. Play Minecraft ALL DAY
  3. Watch TV!
  4. Eat chocelete [sic]

Oh, snap, I thought. I’ll have to find time to work on spelling, too. More importantly, my kids couldn’t think of anything they wanted to do with me. I assumed I was a mom whose kids saw her as categorically playful and interactive, but the truth is that the bulk of my daily parenting plan consists of me tossing them off into their own worlds, pushing piano practice and homework, play dates, chores and independent play. There are times when they get my undivided attention: I snuggle with them on the couch over my morning coffee. I sit with each of them to read and check in before bed. Despite these tender, isolated moments, they don’t know what it means to have me totally available to them all day.

Mom Camp, it seemed, would be revolutionary for all of us.

I didn’t want to truncate their ideas, reshaping them before they had fully formed, but I nixed anything involving screen time or airline tickets. Instead, we planned out five days of camp-like activities, to be repeated and revised as necessary.

Now, the new list looks something like this:

  1. A grocery run/field trip to a local farm.
  2. Messy driveway crafts with chalk and cheap bubbles.
  3. Backyard Baseball: I agreed (in writing, with my actual signature) to pitch to the kids for one straight hour.
  4. I also promised to put my bathing suit on and endure the cold-water blitz of a sprinkler set up in the grass.

We threw in a few higher-effort ideas like the beach, camping, and a visit to a state park. I wondered aloud whether we would actually be able to fit in all of these activities, some of them repeatedly.

Even in July, with the exhaustion of a busy school year still fresh on our minds, the wide-open summer remains at risk for being overscheduled — I know this. We’re armed with a solid plan to thwart boredom, but each of us needs to take time for ourselves.

One afternoon last July when the rest of the house was quiet, I heard singing through the bathroom wall. My then-7 year-old son, a classic introvert, was holed up in the closet on the other side. He had spent the morning building a padded bunker out of pillows. From there, he bellowed out an anthem proclaiming reign over his one-man, four-walled dominion. That tiny, packed space became a source of freedom for him. He returned there daily, two flashlights in hand. He needed time and space — inside a safe fortress — to be himself.

If that’s true for all of us (and I reckon it is) then we’ll incorporate that kind of unstructured time into Mom Camp, like retreating to our bunks for rest hour. I could actually pick up a book midday in my bedroom or on the back patio. My 4-year-old could claim the bathroom sink for various experiments in mischief involving hand towels and found objects. My 8-year-old son might construct a basement Bastille. My daughter could close the door to her own room and make library books and dirty socks disappear.

Maybe we’ll still get bored with all the together time — that sometimes happens even during a week full of school days and activities. Still, call it what you will, the point is to arrange this summer so that my children have my undivided attention; now, more than ever, that’s what they need.

Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley.

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