GirlReadingAs the song goes, school’s out for summer! Children across the country are putting another school year behind them and welcoming, with open arms, the long days of summer. But while summer might seem like the perfect time to put aside routines and schedules, Mollie Grow, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says a little structure is critical for kids’ growth and development.

Summer schedule may sound like an oxymoron, but kids need direction and routine, says Grow. Some children can experience a loss of cognitive ability during summer break, according to some studies. By encouraging mental stimulation throughout summer, parents can help children maintain math, reading and spelling skills. Research suggests a significant positive effect when children are enrolled in summer learning programs, compared to children who are not. Promote daily reading or math problems, select educational television programs and games and plan educational “field trips” with the family, like nature walks or trips to museums.

A lack of routine can also have physical effects on children. “Some kids become more susceptible to weight gain during summer. More likely than not, these effects are due to changes in a child’s routine,” says Grow. “With less structure, children may snack more and become more sedentary, which can lead to weight gain.”

Many parents worry about over-scheduling their families, but Grow says there’s a risk to “under-scheduling” as well. “Kids tend to thrive and do best on routines. While it’s important to have breaks, fun and unstructured play time, routines let kids have something to rely on,” says Grow. This can be particularly important during summer, when kids have more free time and less supervision.

Simple ways to keep structure during summer

Grow says simple things, like waking kids up at the same time every day, can help provide some structure during the carefree summer months. She offers six ideas parents can use this summer:

  • Daily routines – regular wake up, eating and bed times – even if shifted later for the long days
  • Summer school
  • Summer competitions – summer reading programs at the local library or summer sports leagues
  • Camps – educational, sports or overnight
  • Scheduled family trips
  • Volunteering in the community or finding a neighborhood job, for older children

Keep kids active and away from the TV

Parents can start by setting specific guidelines for their kids and creating an environment that promotes healthy habits, says Grow.

Start by setting expectations and realistic goals and boundaries. For instance, how much screen time is too much? When should your daughter wake up each morning? How much time should your son spend outside?  These are important questions for parents to ask, says Grow. “Children need guidelines and expectations. If they don’t have them, they tend to become easily restless or complain of boredom,” says Grow.

As a baseline, Grow suggests limiting screen time to less than two hours each day and encouraging kids to get at least one hour of physical activity each day.

That’s why helping kids find a regular activity they enjoy, whether it’s summer camp, a weekly play date at the park, or helping a neighbor, is so important, says Grow.  “If a child is in a stimulating environment, getting to play and be active, and do things that promote motor and cognitive skills, then even kids who tend to be more sedentary will be more likely to be engaged and active,” says Grow.

Remember, not all kids are the same. “If kids aren’t as self-motivated to be active during the summer, that’s when structure and planning can be most helpful. By default, if children are left to their own devices they will more likely choose the path of least resistance with sedentary activities like watching TV, playing video games or surfing the web,” says Grow.

For parents who work outside the home, Grow encourages open dialogue with caregivers and regular check-ins throughout the summer. She says caregivers need to know what goals and expectations you have set for your child. Many parents work during summer, which can make maintaining a child’s summertime routine more difficult. Parents should start by having an open conversation with their child’s babysitter, child care center or family member about their child’s routine while under their supervision.

Way to promote physical activity in summer

Plan family outings together. Go on bike rides, hikes or plan a family party or barbecue. Or think big and plan a camping trip. Parents should model healthy behavior and involve kids in making decisions about family activities, says Grow.  For younger kids, parents can offer simple choices, such as, “Would you rather go to the playground or park? By giving a child an option, they feel more involved in the decision, making them more likely to enjoy the activity. Encourage kids to try new things, says Grow.

Promote self-regulatory skills. For kids, being outside and participating in activities builds self-regulatory skills. “For my daughter right now, she’s gaining confidence riding a bike and practicing on the monkey bars. When we go to the park she builds strength and confidence for doing these things.”

Spend time as a family. Family time can be wonderful for a child’s development, physically and mentally. “Kids can benefit from spending time with parents. Family time can improve a child’s cognitive development, vocabulary and understanding of the world,” says Grow. Enjoy the long days of summer and plan outings as a family. One of Grow’s favorite activities is family bike rides after dinner. Take advantage of places you can walk together, like the local park or library. Keeping up the bedtime routine of reading is also important.

Is your family on a budget? There are lots of low cost options for families who want to participate in summer activities, but are on a limited budget, says Grow. For suggestions, check out Seattle Parks and Recreation or the YMCA.

Remember to have fun this summer. Take a break, relax in the sun, but incorporate structure into a child’s summertime schedule.

Additional Resources:

If you’d like to arrange an interview with Dr. Grow, please contact Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or at