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The summer vacations of our youth were a seemingly endless period of relaxation, leisurely bike rides around the neighborhood and time to do all the things we never got the chance to accomplish during the school year.

And those lazy days of summer remain important for children now to experience, according to Milwaukee-area experts.

'Kids are so stressed nowadays in school, taking AP classes, getting into AP classes, the stresses of sports practices and games, that by the end of the school year, there's so much burnout. They're just exhausted,' said Bridget O'Brien of Shoreview Pediatrics in Milwaukee.

And that burnout is why Wauwatosa psychologist Jeanne Herzog recommends a healthy dose of 'chill time' for kids during the summer months.

'What I hear from kids is that they really do want to be able to chill and play. Most kids don't want to go to summer school, but some kids don't even want to have to go to swimming lessons at eight in the morning. They want freedom,' she said.

Of course there can also be too much of a good thing. Sure, it's great to relax after a long school year, but parents don't want their kids to fall into a summer of lying around, playing video games and uttering the inevitable summer mantra – 'I'm bored.'

There's also the fact that for a lot of families, parents' work schedules don't allow for a summer of unstructured downtime, and for those kids — who O'Brien refers to as Type A, go-go-go personalities — too much relaxation doesn't really meet their needs.

Herzog points out that summer can be a time to continue the structure of the school year, but in a way that is led by children's interests.

'Sometimes kids like to be busy, sometimes they like to be active and involved. If kids are expressing a strong interest, I think it's good to pay attention because this is where kids start exploring new interests,' she said.

What it all boils down to is finding a balance between structure and relaxation that works for both the kids' personalities and the parents' need for childcare while they're at work.

Research summer childcare

Parents should be thoughtful about the child care choices they make for their kids during the summer, said Renee Hundt, director of child care services at Penfield Children's Center.

Kids in child care centers or daily camps and classes have lots of structure in their days. But there are some places that don't pack activities into the schedule all day every day. Those programs that plan relaxation into their days may be a great option for families who are trying to get a break for their kids.

'In any kind of quality program, the teachers still have a daily schedule during the summer, but part of that is free play where the kids get to choose what to do,' she said.

Plan summer bucket lists

Summer vacation dilemmas differ based on kids' ages. Kids who are old enough to stay home alone but not old enough to have a summer job or drive can run into the problem of having too much downtime while their parents are at work.

To stave off boredom and too much lounging, Hillary Olson, Milwaukee Public Museum vice president of audience and community engagement, said it's a good idea to allow older kids some downtime interspersed with targeted structure geared at achieving specific goals related to their interests.

'It might be good to schedule three hours outside time, one hour of screen time, then book time, something like that. We keep our 14-year-old interested by giving him different challenges — like to see if he can ride his bike three miles,' she said.

Vary your week's activities

Whichever side of the spectrum you fall — structured versus laidback — you should choose one to two days a week to do the opposite, O'Brien said.

'If your child is more of a go-go-go planner, you should institute one to two days a week where he has to relax, and he has to do something enjoyable. At the opposite end, if your kid would just rather lounge around all day, then you could come up with a bucket list of things to do one to two days a week, to complete during the summer,' she said.

Integrate staycations

Herzog points out that many parents plan their vacation days around their kids' summer vacations. She suggests that for kids who are in daycare and camps all day, not all of those parental vacations should be focused on getting out of town or packing in family activities.

'If parents can plot out times where they can take a week off here or a long weekend, I think it's really important to allow kids to just hang out at the house,' she said.

Follow your kids' lead

Whether you're trying to encourage your busy child to relax or your laid-back child to get busy, make suggestions that will pique their interests. Twelve-year-old Maddie Leukam likes both structure and relaxation, as long as the activity is up her alley.

'If I've just gone to the library, I want to relax, but I like structure if it's something I like to do. There's a lot of structure with track during the summer, and I like having that scheduled because I love track,' she said.

Whichever combination of structure and relaxation you choose this summer, it's important to take advantage of the time and enjoy it.

'Whether you're eight or seventeen, you don't get this awesome three-month period ever again. Kids grow up too fast nowadays, they need to embrace summertime,' said O'Brien. ■

Amy Schwabe is a Franklin-based freelance writer and mom of two girls.


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