As we celebrate the last day of school, I’ve been preparing for the summer holidays. This is kind of a one-time thing for us: I’m effectively a stay at home mum this summer, and it’s my first summer holidays with a school-age child. I see an expanse of six gorgeous weeks with my boys. Even the weather has been unusually dry, sunny, and hot. What could be better? And I’m reminded of something I read recently: we only have 18 summers with our kids. Not much at all, is it?

Then I think practically about it. I’m approaching the last thirteen, unpaid weeks of maternity leave as summer holidays start, so money is tighter than tight. And I’ve been enjoying my time with my baby while my older son is at school, which is my quality time with baby but also when he is nursing or sleeping in my arms, it’s my only me-time all day. During the week-long holidays so far this year I’ve not really had time to read or write or meditate. How will that go for six weeks?

And then there’s also the very real situation when my son stands in the lounge and asks me what is something fun we can do together today and all I hear is crickets chirping in my head?

So holding both the amazing opportunity and the challenge of full-time and largely-solo-parenting, I’m sharing my brainstorm of ideas to make summer work for my kids and, importantly, for me, too. Here we go.

Free stuff

As I mentioned, I have this time because I’m not working, which also means I’m broke. I’m sure a lot of stay at home mums are in a similar boat, as high cost of childcare can easily cancel out the benefit of returning to work. Maybe work doesn’t make financial sense but it doesn’t mean you’re loaded, either. So here’s some free ideas for the summer.

During the school year we go every three weeks or so, but we can easily visit once a week looking at books. And as our local library is good but wee, we might check out libraries from around the borough.

Obvs I know but also strangely easy to forget because they are always there. As with the libraries, we may branch out and try out some other parks in the borough.

As an adult it’s easy to just think of the faff and bugs but taking lunch to the park or just plopping a picnic in the garden makes something you have to do anyway an event. You can also assume that any days out I may be planning in this blog will also include a packed lunch to keep costs down.

Playing in the garden

We FINALLY have a garden, and already have been making good use of it, which I intend to continue this summer.

Enjoying the garden

Running the sprinkler or filling up the paddling pool (barring any hosepipe bans, of course) can provide my two boys and me hours of fun as well as cooling all of us off. We have a cheap IKEA pop up fort/tent thing (green cube in the photo above), which actually works well as a base for my baby so he always has some shade. My older son can spend a good hour kicking a football around with me, as long as my baby is willing to be in the carrier with me. Also, I’m aware that indoor activities sometimes feel special when done outside, from painting to drawing.

Drawing together
Speaking of drawing, my son loves when I sit down and draw with him. We often draw along the same theme (chosen by him). And when I cannot draw with him because of housework or baby care, there are a number of top notch YouTube tutorials. I particularly like Art for Kids Hub,  as the pacing is appropriate for kids to draw along to and the guy who does it always has a kid drawing alongside him in real time.

child's angler fish drawing
Angler Fish by my then four-year-old, thanks to the help of Art Hub for Kids

I’m so quick to forget about it but this is a cheap and cheerful activity. It may only buy you a half hour, but in a long day of entertaining kids, it’s a good one to have up your sleeve. We have a stash of playdoh but there are also loads of DIY recipes for salt dough you can make yourself.

Soap sculptures
This may be more suitable for older kids, so not sure I’m ready to try this one with my boys just yet, but as a kid I remember we had soap sculpture contests at school and they were so much fun. Just get a bar of soap and a butter knife and see what your kid can carve. Best of all the shavings and the sculpture can be used as soap when the fun is over.

Play dates with friends
Play dates are actually amazingly helpful. The friend keeps your kid busy and entertained, and his or her presence breathes new life to your kid’s toys, even the ones they’re sick of. Plus there’s the possibility of the child’s parent returning the favour, giving you some time to relax. I also love play dates as I have watched my son’s social skills improve as he plays host and guest over the past year.

Finally, if you’re like me and the only kids you really spend lots of time with are your own, it can be wonderfully reassuring to have their peers over to play and see how certain behaviours are totally normal, such as embarrassing bluntness, sulking, or crying even as a ‘big kid’ when they get overexcited. Some of the behaviours I previously had worried were things my son would have outgrown had I been a better parent have been shown to be totally normal for lots of kids his age, thanks to the exposure I’ve had through play dates.

Nearly free stuff

Granted, my son’s interest in baking lasts for about thirty seconds of stirring, but I think there’s something really enjoyable about the activity, especially if I embrace that it’s mostly me baking and him nipping in and out of the kitchen. I think it’s good for kids to see a handful of ingredients turn into something else. Plus there’s the activity of sitting together and eating the cake/bread/scones, which feels really special.

Tea shop
My son is a fan of going to our local tea rooms, so this is a low-cost option I’m keeping up my sleeve to dress up some of our other local outings that may be cheap or free. For instance, if we go to the park and the library, we might follow it up with a stop at the tea rooms. The whole afternoon might cost us £5, and we both get a treat and a break from the afternoon sun.

Whilst I’m keen to avoid too much TV, I do like settling down to watch a film together. If we do this, we’ll make an event of it, complete with popcorn, maybe a fort from which to watch it, and ideally watching it together.

A lot of cinemas also offer discounted movie mornings during school holidays, so I’m keeping an eye out for our local cinema’s timetable to see if there’s a Monday morning screening he’ll be interested in. It costs less than a fiver, so even if it’s a forgettable movie it’s good value for money.

Sky garden at Fenchurch Street

For Londoners, we are spoiled for cheap or free outings. One I’m keen to book is the Sky Garden at Fenchurch Street. It’s free, but you have to book in advance. The main issue I’ve found is the website isn’t mobile friendly and they only book tickets about a week in advance, so the bookable days are often already fully booked. But if you persist and keep an eye on it, you can get a timed ticket.

Relatively cheap stuff

We’re members at an aquarium in nearby Southend-On-Sea, so a trip to the aquarium is basically the cost of the train tickets and anything we may buy while we’re there, like something from the gift shop and/or lunch. You may find there are other things like this close to home, from National Trust properties to museums.

St Paul’s Cathedral
Because we went in May and I Gift Aided the ticket price, my ticket is good for a year. It’s just the cost of my travel and again anything we buy while we’re there, like toys or tea and cake. My five-year-old has loved the view from the Stone Gallery. The Golden Gallery is a bit of a steep climb and he did it the first time we went but was scared, so that may be a bit much for younger kids.

There are so many museums that only cost a reasonable donation to visit. We will likely make a day of it by going to the museums in South Kensington one day (possibly alongside a visit to Kensington Gardens below). There’s also the Museum of London and Museum of London Docklands, which are both fun and have good experiential hands-on exhibits for younger kids.

Kensington Gardens 
Beyond our local parks is the wonderful Kensington Gardens, which we are planning to visit for one of our cheaper days out. At the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, we will bring swim trunks and towels and plenty of sunscreen. When we went last August, I thought we could roll up our trouser legs but quickly realised many sections are deep enough for kids to wade a little – some deeper than a paddling pool. So this year we’re going to make a day of it and be prepared with swim gear and a change of clothes.

We will follow this up with the Princess Diana Memorial Playground at the other end of the park. You may have to queue to get in, but this free playground is AMAZING, full of natural tunnels and forts and hiding places. There’s a real mixture of sand places, water fountains, climbing frames, and places to hide and run.

The whole day could cost just the travel to get there and maybe an ice cream or coffee if you bring your own lunch and decide to splurge.

Days out

I plan to punctuate all of the cheap and free days with a few pricier days out. For instance, my son wants to visit Buckingham Palace, so we plan to book tickets for that. And for his recent birthday we have a whole day planned, including a hop-on-hop-off bus, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and a birthday trip to Hamleys.

And a final thought about boredom

Finally, I hope there will be some down time when my son gets to feel bored. Whilst his boredom can sometimes be a breeding ground for attention-seeking behaviours, it’s often when a child feels bored for long enough that he or she will get really creative. And I want my son to enjoy imaginative play.

I think my son has benefited in a number of ways from having two parents working outside the home, but if there’s one drawback that comes to mind (aside from the obvious fact that I miss him and have wondered why I’m working to earn a salary that largely goes towards my travel and childcare costs….so that I can work), it’s that I think he’s come to expect people to entertain him at all times. He has been almost spoiled by well-run, educational nurseries where the children are marched from one activity to the next and the next… Of course they have free play, but the day is highly structured.

So my son sometimes seems to expect me to spoon feed him entertainment and activities. A craft is hardly over before he’s asking what’s next. I want him to learn to entertain himself, and I’m aware that might only happen if we push through the “I’m bored” and “what can we do togetherness”. If necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps needing to break up the boredom oneself is fertile ground for creativity.

Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy your summer. Again, we only get 18 of these with our kids before they’re adults in the eyes of the law. I hope we all create great memories this season.

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