Should Parents Set Summer Schedules for Kids?

by Brenda Yoder, MA

summer schedules for kidsSummertime is here and most schools will be releasing kids for the summer this week.  A reader at Life Beyond the Picket Fence recently asked me to write about summer schedules – should parents at home set summer schedules for kids?  It’s a good question. I’ll share my thoughts – personal and professional.


When the reader asked, I had a flash-back to a restaurant booth at Jo Jo’s Pretzel’s, a local hang-out when my kids were little.  It was the first week of summer vacation and I had great plans for the summer with my tribe of four children. They had just finished 3rd grade, kindergarten, and I had a three-year old and one-year old.  I had hopes for a summer routine of play, activity, and work. I was going to create quality family time during vacation.

How else would I keep them occupied and absent from fighting?  How else would I remain sane with all of them home?

We sat in the booth, eating our home-made pretzels and I revealed my great summer schedule.  In minutes I realized “The Schedule” may be problematic.

The third-grader immediately started complaining.  As she complained, the kindergartener began picking on the three-year old and the baby knocked over a glass of soda.

 Welcome to summer. 

What I imagined as an idyllic date with great ideas for summer schedules for the kids turned into the “normal” routine of life….messiness, whining, fighting and a frustrated mom. 

Can you relate?

The eye-opening experience for me was validated in summers to come that kids need unstructured time to just be kids.  Summer schedules for kids may or may not be ideal. In the pre-teen years of parenting, I wanted to teach my kids important things ….I  thought I needed to provide quality activities, structured chores, and meaningful play pretty much {all the time}.

But after being in school for nine months with testing and rigid schedules, my little monkeys just wanted to be free.

Like many things I’ve learned in parenting, I reassessed.  I looked at what my goals were in setting schedules for kids and what the most realistic ways were to get them accomplished. 

My goals for a routine and scheduled summer were developing a sense of routine, responsibility, accountability, and having educational moments during their time away from school.  It was also to give me a sense of peace and sanity.

The reality was that kids of varying stages naturally push boundaries of being told what to do.  They naturally whine and fight and want to do things their way. I didn’t want to get into a powerstruggle with my kids over the routine and schedule created for “quality family time.” And I didn’t want to be angry and frustrated with my kids who weren’t doing things according to my schedule.

So how did I meet my goals I had for setting summer schedules for kids? 

  1. By setting goals with flexible time-frames.  I made it a goal each week to do something fun with the kids. Once I picked the activity, I just made sure we got it done.  This allowed for flexibility around weather, children’s moods, and essentials chores needing to be done.  Nothing upsets kids more than when you promise to do something “scheduled” and you have to change plans. Some kids at developmental stages can’t understand this, which causes more frustration.
  2. By setting chores for kids with a time-frame and letting them be responsible to accomplish it within those limits. As much as I’d love to have all my children doing chores in a timely manner from 9-10 every day, if you have more than one child – it probably won’t happen without a melt-down of some sort.  It’s been helpful for our kids to have assigned chores at different ages with the expectation that “by 4:00, this needs to be done” or “before you play the video game, this needs to be done.” It gives a child a sense of freedom and “grown-upness” they crave while still teaching them responsibility.
  3. By choosing my battles. With four kids nine years apart, there is never a stage where everyone is compliant with a smile and “yes Ma’am” on their lips. Each summer, I’ve had to think about what each child needed for summer vacation to be.  For one child, it might be to learn the art of unstructured time and flexibility. For another child, it might be to learn structure and responsibility. For the child whose schedule is dictated by summer activities and busyness, they may just need to “chill.” For the preschooler needing naps, a scheduled naptime is important.  Determining summer schedules for kids should be based on the needs and stages of the children.
  4. By finding balance. Like most things in life, balance is key.  All of these factors need to be held in balance for summer schedules with kids.
  5. By realizing my children needed time to just to be a kid.  As an educational and counseling professional working in schools, if I could say a crucial thing about kids in today’s society, it would be “kids still need time to be a child.”  Kids have a lot of fear-based expectations put on them.  “If my child isn’t involved in this, then…..”  “If they don’t score well on this test, then….” “If they don’t keep up with the neighbor’s child, then….”  Young children have eighteen years to figure out success and will have a lifetime to have their time dictated by schedules.  Only once to they have time to play. It’s a basic need kids today are NOT learning.  I’ll write more on this in a later post.  As a professional counselor and educator, my colleagues and I are shocked and concerned that kids don’t know how to be kids, how to play, how to be creative and how to problem solve.  They don’t know how to live in unstructured time where they need to develop these skills. It’s an epidemic.

On a personal note, I’ve struggled with these fears.  I’m still raising my kids.  But as I’ve learned to let them “play,” I’ve still seen them succeed.  My oldest was third in her graduating class, and my graduating senior is fourth in his class and has won a full-ride scholarship for four years of college.  They each lettered in more than one varsity sport. And they played.  It’s okay.

I’d love to hear other thoughts on structure, routine, and summer schedules for kids.  Each child and family is different, so what works for me may not work for you.  Professionally and personally, I’ve learned from these strategies and have seen them be successful for other families.  Please comment and let us at Parents Space know  your thoughts!