I wrote this post four years ago, when I had three kids ages 6 and under. Hoping it helps those of you in the trenches with little ones home this summer (and a special shout-out to AZ mamas who have to do it all INDOORS). xo, Sarah
It’s summer, moms. Are you loving it? I really enjoyed the first week or so of not rushing around in the mornings, staying in pajamas for half the day, and not remembering exactly what day it was.
But for me there comes a point where I crave a little more routine. Not a ton, but a little. My kids are young – 6, 4, and 16 months – and still rely on me to set the tone for our summer days, so this year I’m making an effort to find that balance between structure and freedom.
I first tried out the system I’ll share with you in a minute over spring break, and it was so helpful. I felt like it gave the kids a big role in designing their own vacation fun, without turning me into a helpless chauffeur to their every whim. I kept my protected at-home work time each day, they knew when to look forward to their big-ticket “fun stuff,” and they also had a stable of at-home ideas to keep them busy.
Here’s HOW it works in a nutshell:
- We make a giant weekly schedule template that the kids help create and fill with activities
- We block-schedule our days so that everyone understands the basic rhythm of each day (we’re always home in the middle of the day for the baby’s naptime, for example)
- The kids choose from a list of at-home activities and out-and-about excursions to fill in the blocks on the schedule
- We make the whole thing large, dynamic, and in-your-face obvious to minimize the “what are we DOING today?” and “can we GO somewhere now?” questions
Here’s WHY I think it works:
- The kids are involved from beginning to end – they make the list of things to do, they help create the schedule, and they put the activities on the calendar
- They can see and read the schedule anytime they want to or need a reminder
- It’s not about programming every hour OR checking things off a list, but about making time for the things we want to do – and need to do
If you’re looking for just-enough structure this summer, here’s a step-by-step guide to how I made our summer schedule. Let me know if you have any questions by leaving a comment at the end of the post!
1. Make two lists (at-home and out-and-about)
For the last couple of weeks we’ve had a giant piece of butcher paper taped to the wall in our kitchen. Every time somebody says “you know what we should do this summer? ___________.”, we write it down. You might call it a bucket list, but I think of it more as a catch-all for the things we think might be fun. I can guarantee we won’t actually DO all of them this summer, and that’s okay.
To balance out the big-ticket outings that the kids have no trouble dreaming up – Children’s Museum, Science Center, amusement park, etc. – I’ve also been filling the list with everyday, at-home activities: bake cookies, paint, play-doh, kids-make-dinner night, family movie night, etc.
The key is that we have a good mix of at-home and out-and-about activities, as well as a balance between Big Cool Fun stuff and more everyday entertainment.
Once you’ve made your list, you’ll need the materials you see below (or something close enough):
2. Make your activity cards
Using our big list, we make “activity cards” to fill the spots on our schedule. I cut some old card stock into rectangles about 2 inches by 4 inches – half of them yellow and the other half green. On the yellow cards we wrote activities that take place outside the house; on the green went at-home diversions. My six-year-old did some of the cards on her own, my four-year-old tackled a few, and I helped with the rest.
As we copied ideas from the big list to the cards, we thought of even more ideas for things to do. There’s no upper limit to the number of ideas/cards you end up with – I’m just careful to set the expectation that we might not get to everything this summer (which is why one of the cards says “CROOS” and we have no plans for a cruise anytime soon :)).
Finally, I add in a few “boring” cards like “Groceries,” “Costco,” “Chores,” etc. Since the kids will fill in the schedule, it helps to have those things included so that they can fit them in around the fun stuff.
3. Construct your calendar
For the actual schedule, we use a roll of art easel butcher paper about four feet long. A poster board would also work. I think the larger size helps small kids see, touch, and buy in to the whole thing a lot more easily, so as much as I love my weekly Google calendar printout, for this project we go big.
I use a Sharpie and draw straight-enough lines vertically to divide the length of the paper into seven days of the week (I start the week on Monday but that’s just a personal preference).
Below the days of the week I draw horizontal lines to separate four major blocks of time during the day (more on schedule blocking in a bit). Depending on your schedule, you might have more or fewer blocks.
4. Block schedule your days (and know thyself before you do)
I work best with a predictable routine – not down to the minute, but with a same-enough rhythm to my days. I also have a toddler who naps during the middle of the day, somewhere in the window between 11am and 2pm. And finally, I work from home, so I rely on that predictable routine and midday nap to Getteth The Stuff Done.
I also am happiest when we spend a fair amount of time at home, punctuated by one or two outings during the day. I’m not a fan of bouncing around from errands to activities to another quick errand and then one more thing before we head home. Just not my style. I know other moms who feel stir-crazy at home or whose kids need more activity than mine seem to – so this is an area where it helps to know and honor yourself and your family dynamic.
Knowing myself and our family, our schedule blocks are: Morning (wake-up to 11am), Mid-Day (11am-2pm), Afternoon (2pm-5pm), and Evening (5pm-bedtime). So my finished (empty) schedule looks like this:
4. Fill in the blocks with at-home or out-and-about activities for the week
Finally, the fun part: filling in the schedule blocks with the activity cards! I wrote a couple of things we do every week directly on the calendar, but the rest will change out each week so the cards work better.
I use a piece of Scotch tape rolled into a loop to stick the cards on the paper. When we take them down to schedule the next week, it peels off easily.
Just like with every other step of this process, I really try to let the kids take the lead as much as possible. I’m trying to avoid the “But MO-OM, why can’t we do something FUN today?” complaints – if they help make the schedule, they have an ownership stake in the process. With the color-coded cards, it’s easy for them to choose independent, at-home activities for the mid-day block when their sister is napping, and I can help them with other details, like doing outdoor stuff earlier in the day when it’s cooler.
This is also a chance for me to make sure my priorities are met as well. I put our necessary errands and any other appointments on the calendar at the same time, so the kids understand up front that not every day will be a trip to the park (literally).
(Just in case it isn’t obvious, we don’t start and end every activity according to those schedule blocks. No amount of play-doh is going to keep my kids busy for 3 hours straight, and a trip to the store doesn’t take all morning. But given all of our need to chill out and dawdle and putter in between, we aim for one activity per block of time.)
5. Hang and display!
Have you noticed a theme about my execution here? It’s SO not professional or crafty. I didn’t measure anything, or use a straight-edge. I use Scotch tape to stick some paper to some more paper and stick the whole thing to my dining room wall. If a more polished look is your thing, that’s awesome; I just didn’t want lack of skills or supplies get in my way of getting this done, so ours is a bit rough around the edges.
The schedule hangs high up on the dining room wall, where everybody can see it as we sit around the table. I also keep a container of blank cards and a Sharpie nearby so we can add ideas as we think of them (notice how many blank spots there still are above? We start with the stuff we KNOW we want or need to do, and fill the rest in as we go).
Of course, nothing is set in stone; if the kids don’t feel like doing LEGOs on Tuesday, who cares? They can look through the other cards for another idea.