Some moms have had their children's summer camps and activities booked and paid for since March. Then there are the rest of us, who manage to cobble together a few activities for the beginning of summer but by August have all but run out of ideas for keeping the kids occupied. Choosing, planning — not to mention paying for — life enhancement-based programs can be daunting, but we all know what the old folks say about an idle mind. What's more, just chilling during the break leaves children playing catch-up once school starts. "One of the greatest challenges in our community is getting our kids involved in enrichment activities," says Damon A. Williams, Ph.D., senior vice-president of program, training and youth development at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. "That expression 'Use it or lose it' is not just an empty saying."
Fortunately, not all great activities require long lead times and hefty price tags. Consider these options:
Get Kids in the Spirit. Vacation Bible School programs select child-friendly themes, such as the environment, space or superheroes, and they use these themes to relate the Gospel and its teachings. Church membership and religious affiliation are rarely prerequisites for participation. In a typical day kids are engaged in games and arts and crafts, role-playing and team building.
Beef up Skills. Lauren Hammonds Brown, a St. Louis mother of two, encourages her kids to think of summers the way athletes approach the off-season — as a time to work on boosting weak areas. "Fractions, geometry — whatever they struggled with during the year, I try to reinforce," she says. You can often arrange semiprivate sessions with a college or high school honors student for a small hourly fee. Mathnasium, an international chain of math learning centers, offers personalized math instruction and fun, math-based improvement sessions. Visit mathnasium.com for a site near you. Also, think about starting a summer book club with your kids' friends. Include time to socialize and incorporate pleasurable activities, like drawing their favorite scenes. They'll barely know they're learning.
Play Ball. No matter your child's skill level, she will score high through sports. In addition to character-building benefits such as learning respect for others and how to collaborate, physical exercise can help feed your child's brain. A study on cognitive function cites a link between physical activity and increased brain volume in parts of the brain where executive thinking takes place. To find low-cost sports programs near you, check your local parks and recreation bureau. You can also visit active.com. If there is a major league baseball or basketball team in your area, visit the team's Web site for information on moderately priced summer programs.
Volunteer. Turn your child's passion into a project for helping others. Your youngster can join a group that offers opportunities to volunteer, such as the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts or 4-H club. Pet lovers can spend time helping out at an animal shelter. Artistic types can make cards and pictures for our servicemen and women. Log on to anysoldier.com for more details. Volunteermatch.org is home to a huge database that will connect you to local volunteer possibilities. And don't forget to look out for ways to offer services in your own backyard. Is there an elderly person on the block your child might visit or run errands for? How about younger children in the neighborhood? Their mom may be in need of a mother's helper.
Discover the Great Outdoors. With all the gadgets at their disposal, it may take some effort to get kids to venture outside. But it's worth it. Let them while away a few hours in the backyard or a park. Communing with nature is soothing and restorative, and it also spurs creativity. "There are surprising things kids can touch, hear and smell outside," says John Duntley, senior camping specialist at YMCA of the USA. "It's a learning environment you can't get anywhere else."
This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.