Summer Activity with Kids: Creative/Academic

The kids and I are doing a new summer activity this year, and I really like it and so do the kids, so I thought I would mention it in case it’s a good fit at your house as well.

I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but I think it started when Rob and I were talking about how there were things we WANTED to do but somehow it was hard to make ourselves do them—and yet if we were SUPPOSED to do them, we’d enjoy it. …This needs an example. So, like, let’s say you would really like to practice sketching/drawing. But every time you think of it, you’re kind of like “Mehhhhhhhh, but then I’d have to stop playing Candy Crush.” But you think that in the LONG run you’d rather you did the drawing. And you think that if you HAD to do it, like if you were back in school and they made you, you’d enjoy it.

Or let’s say you keep thinking you’d kind of like to freshen up your high school French, because you enjoyed that class back when you took it. But you just never seem to get around to actually logging onto the computer to find one of those language sites. Maybe your library has even subscribed to a language program so you could take a cool online course for free, but….well. I mean. Somehow you don’t do it. And yet if you were suddenly back in high school, you’d be looking forward to French class.

Or maybe you feel as if you ought to have read A Brief History of Time, but it drifts right down to the bottom of the book pile underneath all the lighter fiction books. You kind of wish a teacher was MAKING you read it.

So, that’s what Rob and I were talking about, and it was during the first week of summer vacation so I ALREADY had on my list to do some Enriching Activities: like, let’s not just sit around playing Minecraft all summer. (…again.) And so that’s how we came up with the idea.

Here is what we do. Each day, we spend two 30-minute periods all working quietly, plus we have two short (approximately 5-minute-long) talking/reporting times. For the first 30 minute chunk, each person chooses if they want to work on something “academic” or “creative.” You can see how sometimes a category might be difficult to assign (or the same activity might fit into both categories, depending on how you’re doing it), but here are some of our examples so far:

• learning/practicing a language (we’re using
• doing multiplication facts flashcards or Brain Quest Q&As
• doing online quizzes (
• playing an educational game
• watching YouTube CNA/LNA-skill videos
• watching videos on art history or biology or brain chemistry or history or whatever ( or
• reading an educational book such as The Selfish Gene or A Cartoon History of the Universe
• reading about a subject on Wikipedia
• writing a computer program

• writing a poem
• writing a story
• drawing a picture
• doing a craft project
• doodling
• coloring in coloring books
• writing a blog post
• writing a computer program
• working through Lynda Barry’s drawing/writing book Syllabus
• doing perler beads
• making a stop-motion animation

The goal is to work QUIETLY. If two people want to work together on something (flashcards, for example, or perler beads), they must go as far away as possible from everyone else, ideally behind a closed door, and they must still keep their voices low.

When the timer rings, we gather together in the living room, and we go around the circle: each person says first if they chose to work on academic or creative, and then briefly reports on what they chose to do. If they want to, they can show the picture they drew, or tell an interesting fact they learned about woolly mammoths. It takes about five minutes to go around the whole circle.

We take another few minutes for going to the bathroom, getting a drink of water, walking around. Then we launch into the second 30-minute chunk, and each person does the OTHER thing: if they did creative for the first 30 minutes they do academic for the second 30 minutes, and vice versa. Then we gather in the living room to report on THAT.

It’s been QUITE satisfying. Henry (age 8) has the hardest time thinking of what he wants to do; everyone else (age 10 and up) seems to find it relatively easy—and it gets easier as we do it longer, because we get ideas from each other (“OH! I could use perler beads!”) and because we’re starting to notice ideas and file them away for the next session. If more of my kids were the younger age, I might do 15-minute chunks of time, and I might make Idea Lists, or have ideas written on pieces of paper that could be chosen out of a jar, or maybe we would all work on the SAME thing together.

While it’s NICE to work on one thing for the entire 30 minutes, we don’t make that a requirement at all: if for your creative time you want to draw a picture and then write a poem, that’s just fine; if for your academic time you want to watch one video on clouds and another on art history and another on Bach, that’s just fine too.

Or if you start reading The Selfish Gene and then discover you are only 8 years old, you can put it down and pick up a book on Mongol Warriors instead.

25 thoughts on “Summer Activity with Kids: Creative/Academic

  1. JudithNYC

    I really like this idea. Pity I don’t have any children. I am filing it away for any future grandchildren. I am even going to try it on myself. For example, I love knitting but never find the time/motivation to start a project any more but thinking about it in 30 minute chunks of time sounds like something I could do.

  2. heidi

    This is BRILLIANT! Wish I could enforce such a thing in my house but I’m not sure I could convince my teenage boys. Still, I’m thinking I might bring it up at dinner and maybe find a way to modify it in a way that will work for us. (I’m working full time and the boys have various obligations.) Thank you!!!

  3. StephLove

    This sounds like a great system for a family when everyone’s home at the same time. I do try to keep the kids engaged over summer but we’re more scattered.

    This is the kids’ 3rd week of break but the first week everyone’s in town (kid the elder went to visit his grandmother for a week and then we all went on vacation) and we’re just now getting into a routine. Kid the younger has day camp but I have kid the elder do a little summer homework and house or yard work every day so he has some structure. Plus both kids have music lessons and practice their instruments and we read daily.

    1. Swistle Post author

      Many days we have to do it with Whoever’s Home. Like, this week all three younger ones have various camps, so it’s just me and the older ones doing the creative/academic time.

  4. el-e-e

    A very good idea! And then, at the end of one hour, you’re done and can go back to doing whatever you “deafult” to (Minecraft, Candy Crush, haha!), but you’ve still accomplished a lot for the day! I love timed productivity tasks. I use the timer a lot at work when I need to plow through something big and am not motivated to do the whole thing.

  5. shin ae

    We homeschool, and this is similar to our low-intensity days. Some of the best, coolest things my kids have learned, they initiated and researched/practiced independently.

    What I really love about your idea is the fact you’re requiring it, and that it’s structured, but in a simple way that’s easy to execute. I am not so conscientious about requiring things, and also get overwhelmed trying to come up with how to create structure, so this is super helpful.

    1. shin ae

      Actually, I’m thinking about it and you are so GOOD at coming up with stuff like this that I could imagine you having an online problem-solving business, coming up with reasonable, workable solutions to people’s problems.

  6. Shawna

    This is intriguing as I certainly have projects I’ve been putting off. I wonder if I can break “repaint desk” into 30-minute chunks and actually get it done in a few sessions…? (Day 1: sand desk, Day 2 prime, etc.)

    I would definitely like to get it done and once I’m done a project I feel a lot of satisfaction and think “I’d rather do this than read/watch TV/surf the internet any day!” And yet, what do I find myself doing instead of projects?


    1. Shannon

      Shawna, have you heard of Annie Sloan’s chalk paint? It’s a bit pricey but if you factor in not sanding/priming, purchasing those supplies and time spent, it might be worth it.

  7. Carolyn Allen Russell

    SUCH a cool idea! I don’t think it’s quite right for my kids just yet (hahaha, 4, 2.5, and one on the way! They might actually enjoy the activities if I set them up, but I’m too wiped out from daily living to manage that!) ;) But I sure hope I remember it when everyone is a bit bigger!

  8. Alyson

    I love this line:

    Or if you start reading The Selfish Gene and then discover you are only 8 years old, you can put it down and pick up a book on Mongol Warriors instead.

    It’s just tickling me over and over and over. Sometimes it’s rough to discover you’re only 8 years old. :-)

    1. K8

      Similarly tickled by this sentence :)

      And can’t wait til my kids are old enough for this sort of activity; sounds like just the sort of structure I need to start learning ukulele, doing sewing projects, and reading for work.

  9. Ruby

    I love this idea! I like it’s unstructured so it doesn’t feel like school, but it’s also educational and a worthwhile use of everyone’s time. Also, I enjoy the notion of carving out time every day for things you want to do but just never feel like doing. Imagine how much more productive we’d all be if we got even a fraction of all those things done!

    I recently started implementing a similar policy in my own life, though on a smaller scale. I take the train into work every morning to avoid rush-hour traffic, and it takes about thirty or forty minutes each way. I used to spend that time listening to music or playing a game on my phone–good ways to pass the time, but not exactly enriching. (I’d always bring a book with me just in case I felt like reading it, but I never did.) A few weeks ago, though, I decided that the train ride should be devoted to productive (but not boring!) activities only. I could read, practice French with the Duolingo app (because OMG how fun is Duolingo?!), knit, write, whatever. And it’s been so great! I feel so much more awake and ready to start the day by the time I get to work, and when I get home I don’t always feel like turning on the TV right away like I used to–but if I do, I don’t feel as bad about it.

  10. Britni

    The last bit about the Selfless Gene made me laugh.
    Also — so glad someone still uses perler beads!

    Something similar we’ve tried via pinterest: you can only pin ten pins and then you have to do one of them before you can pin anymore. That way there aren’t tons of “wouldn’t this be cool to make” pins.. and no actual doing of anything.

  11. Alex

    That’s awesome! For “academic,” you could use the podcast “How Stuff Works”– it’s like “read wikipedia entry,” but a bit more entertaining and engaging. The premise is that it’s 2 smart dudes who have researched something random that they’re not experts (they’re both writerly types) in like…. the Rosetta Stone! Police interrogation! Octopods! Typhoid Mary! The Black Death! Termites! And they dish on what they found via research, in an organized 20-40 minute conversation, peppered with banter. I love it for my subway commutes.

    Anyway this is a fun idea you and your son have, and I’m filing it away for when I maybe have kiddos. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Alex

      Sorry podcast title is “Stuff You Should Know” but it’s via The 2 dudes are Josh and Chuck. I got too excited!

    2. Squirrel Bait

      Not to be Debbie Downer, but I listened to the police interrogation episode of that podcast, and it was bad, bad, bad. Largely inaccurate and at times literally based on things the guys saw in movies. It would have been much better if they had interviewed an actual expert who could have provided some nuance and fact-checking. Hopefully that episode was an anomaly, though!

        1. Alex

          No reply when I’m checking again, so I will. They absolutely did not simply get info “from movies,” and it was not largely inaccurate– they don’t pretend to be experts, as I said, but they researched the Reid Technique and presented accordingly.

  12. Shannon

    THIS IS TOTALLY AWESOME! Okay I’ve only read the first paragraph and I’m saving the rest, plus all of the good feedback in the comment section, for later. But I am THRILLED you are talking about this!

    I’ve been in a twist in my head over the following: piano ( bought a Minecraft song book for 11 yr old) math for both older kids and cursive because they don’t teach it anymore and that is sad. This week has been lame because the house was in such a state of clutter I felt I needed to tackle it in order to get summer “right” for once.

    My son is taking French next year and I”m very excited because I loved it in high school and took a couple classes in college. I’m by no means anywhere near the fluency of a small child, but I’m excited to help him with basic French in the fall. A bientot, Swistle. Thank you for this :)

  13. Kalendi

    This is genius! No kids here, but I’m going to try it on myself. Of course I’ll have to adapt the talk about section (maybe journal about it), since I don’t want to talk to myself. But I love it!

  14. Gigi

    I LOVE this idea…unfortunately mine is too old (and opinionated) for this…but I could tailor it for me!

  15. vanessa

    this is such a good idea. you are an amazing mom and i am stealing so much stuff for when i have kids.
    also HENRY IS EIGHT??? no way.

  16. Nancy

    I’ve been watching a TED talk every day on the bus to work and it’s been really great and interesting. (And I also knit at the same time, so I’m doing both academic and creative at once!) But I wish I could do the reporting at the end part with someone! So often I’ve forgotten all the details by the next day and I think if I had to summarize what I had learnt I would remember it better. Hmm, maybe I’ll start a blog…

    1. Shawna

      Ooh, TED talks! Love those! I try not to watch too much TV, but a 15-minute TED talk on my iPad in bed is sometimes just the right thing before settling down to sleep.

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