September 25, 2020

Making Summer Fun Out of Plastic Trinkets and Sugary Cereal

Since the quarantine began, my daughter has missed five birthday parties, countless play dates and her elementary school’s talent show. Now that summer is here, many of the seasonal pleasures she’d been eagerly anticipating have not come to pass. No sleepovers at her grandparents’ house. No day camp. No amusement parks.

I repeatedly remind her that she should be glad we are all healthy and safe — but I also recognize that even the most saintly child can’t always practice an Attitude of Gratitude.

Last month, during her final week of school, Sylvie yanked off her headphones one afternoon after a long day of distance learning. “I have nothing to look forward to,” she said glumly.

As she slouched off to her bedroom to cry into our cat’s fur, I had a revelation: In the absence of conventional summer markers, why not create my own? Why not infuse relatively mundane events with a little mystery and expectation? I began by trying out a pilot program in our household that is now fully operational.

I’ve learned that what doesn’t work is to tell a kid “one day” we’ll go on a vacation — they simply have trouble wrapping their brains around it. What does work is to theatrically announce that you’re planning something incredibly fun for this Saturday.

I recently floated this teaser: “I know I normally say no when you beg to get trinkets out of the coin-operated toy machines, but not this weekend. [Long pause for dramatic effect.] On Saturday, I am going to give you 10 quarters. Then we are going to go around to all of the machines in the neighborhood, and you can collect a big pile of the toys you’ve been eyeing.”

For days, my daughter talked of nothing else but the toys, the toys, the toys: What kind should I get? Bouncy balls? Slime? The younger your child is, the more they will anticipate. It’s especially helpful if your intended activity itself has a surprise element. One machine in front of our local deli offers a “mystery item” in an enticingly opaque gold egg, for a whopping 75 cents. We got tons of speculative mileage out of that one: What on earth is worth three quarters? Should we take a gamble? (She did, and was rewarded with a figurine of a tiny dog wearing a cape.)

When the long-awaited event arrives, draw out the suspense and fun as long as possible, ideally with some sort of countdown. Most young children are gratifyingly easy to rile up.

Creating and planning these activities may seem like a small thing, maintains child psychologist Tamar Kahane, Ph.D., founder and director of the Kahane Center in Englewood, N.J., “but it’s a wonderful antidote to all of the disappointments, disruptions and lack of agency we’re all feeling,” she said. “Children have difficulty internalizing the concept of time, especially young children, and right now, there is very little to mark time.” Doing so with shared summer moments, Dr. Kahane continued, “is a way to help children feel some control in their life. Research shows — and it’s intuitive to all of us — that half the fun is in the anticipation.”

Dr. Kahane suggests making a calendar and encouraging kids to check it regularly. That way they can see, “‘Oh, Tuesday, we’re going to set up the slippery slide and the little backyard pool to do a beach day, and Sunday I’m going to that special bakery with Daddy,’” she said.

Amanda Thomsen, a Chicago-based horticulturalist and author of “Backyard Adventure: Get Messy, Get Wet, and Have Tons Of Wild Fun!”, suggests that outdoor free play “is really the ticket this summer.” Mud and water, she added, works for any age group. For kids 4 and under, set them up in the backyard with a shallow tub of water and measuring cups, spoons and funnels (and make sure they remain within sight). “Set the hose nearby and away they go,” said Thomsen. “And hosing mud off a kid is more fun than it ought to be. I find it cleanses my soul, passive aggressively.”

Thomsen plans to build summer excitement for her daughter, Hazel, by “doing a lot of hiding and seeking. She’ll decorate rocks, and then I’ll hide the rocks once she’s gone to bed,” she said. “I’ll also have her set up scavenger hunts for me, which I’m not that gung-ho to participate in, but she’ll take all day hiding stuff and making maps, so I’ll go along — with a cocktail.”

A backyard tent, she added, can be magical for a kid. “My daughter will lug blankets and dolls and an old radio out there, and she might as well be on her own planet.” For an extra thrill, announce to kids they can “camp” outside at night past their bedtime (this can be 15 minutes if your child can’t tell time yet).

Other parents are seizing on any traditional summer activities that are still available — such as drive-in theaters, many of which are experiencing a surge in interest. Joe Barth, owner of the Highway 21 Drive-In in Beaufort County, S.C., said that even though they normally open in summer, demand was already so high in May that they started running movies six nights a week. “Folks are looking for communal activities that are safe,” he said. “A car is the safest way to watch a movie in public right now, it’s a good old American tradition, and parents are excited to have some place to bring the kids.”

Dustin Patrick Smith, owner of a hair salon in Raleigh, N.C., and his husband, Burton Buffaloe, a manager in the tech industry, are looking for local beaches that allow social-distance visits and have gone to a pick-your-own farm in their area. “Being outdoors in large open spaces, we can avoid lots of people,” said Smith. “And the kids love picking strawberries. It’s like Easter egg hunting, but with fruit.” Or they’ll announce to the kids that they can play with water balloons on the weekend. “That gives them something to look forward to, and gives us parents leverage for good behavior,” he said.

And several parents have told me that this is the summer they are finally tackling the backyard treehouse they’ve been putting off (the anticipation of which can be drawn out for many weeks, depending on building skill levels). Scott MacKenzie, president of Treehouse Supplies, Inc., in West Chester, Pa., estimated that his company has seen a fivefold increase in orders. “Since parents are stuck at home and the kids have always wanted one, this shutdown seems like the catalyst to make that happen,” he said.

After the success of the junky toy hunt, I have had Sylvie enter an art contest for children and inscribe a surprise chalk message on the sidewalk in front of her friend’s house as we sprinted away, cackling. I juiced up a simple trip to the grocery store by announcing beforehand that she could pick out any sugary cereal she wanted, which is normally forbidden (mild rule-flouting is always a hit). We spent 45 minutes in Aisle 4 as we deliberated what to buy.

These diversions can be exhausting to plan and execute. But I’ll admit, that as Sylvie finally chose the most neon-colored cereal on offer, I got swept up in the excitement myself — which Dr. Kahane says is a critical part of the appeal for kids. “For them, it’s often about wanting to engage with their parent,” she said. “We’re in a reality that is full of uncertainty and anxiety, so to accept it and to find those moments of joy with your children within it is tremendously important.”

Jancee Dunn is the author of “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.”