Summer lives in our imaginations throughout the year because it nourishes our souls. The warmth.... the fun.... the freedom... the sheer deliciousness. But mostly, the luxury of time, unbounded by school. Time to explore, to make new friends, to lie on your back and watch the clouds billow across a blue sky. The vivid aliveness and freedom of a child's summers can change her forever.

Does this sound like the summer your child is having? Or is he glued to an electronic screen? Or maybe she just has to get up early for camp, so you can get to work? Or maybe he's gotten so used to constant stimulation that he's complaining he's bored?

You CAN reclaim summer for your family. In fact, you can make this the best summer ever with your kids. It doesn't take travel or a lot of money. And you can do it even if you're working and your kids are in day camp. 

What children need for a wonderful summer is:

  • Connection with you.
  • Connection with peers.
  • Some expansive lazy summer afternoons with not much happening, to fertilize the imagination.
  • Opportunities to develop mastery.
  • Some novel experiences that induce awe (think star-gazing while camping, or the ocean).

If that sounds overwhelming, remember that you can keep it simple. A little planning and time is all you need.

I know that time sounds like the one thing you never have enough of. Most parents live with a long list of things that need to get done and feel perpetually overwhelmed. But it's summer. Your kids won't be kids forever. This is the stuff their childhood memories are made of. And you'll be glad when you look back that you took this opportunity to enjoy them. As George R.R. Martin says, “Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”

Why not decide now to make the most of this opportunity to connect with your kids? Here are ten simple tips to make this summer your best summer ever with your family.

1. Set aside some time every day to have fun with your child.

Whether it's running through the sprinkler together on a hot afternoon or counting the stars on a blanket in the backyard before bedtime, do at least one thing each day to connect and have fun. Remember, what matters is always how it FEELS, not how it LOOKS. Your child doesn't need a Martha Stewart activity; just a loving connection with you.

2. Find the "sweet spot" for structure and work.

Research shows that kids get stressed during the school year from academics, homework, the social scene, and all the activities. They really need time to chill and relax.

But they also need structure, meaning they need their day and week to have a shape, so they know what to expect. Set up a schedule, post it, revise it if necessary, and refer to it throughout the day. You can keep it simple. For instance, every morning after we play, we pick up the house together for an hour, and after lunch we have reading time together and then quiet time in our rooms. Every afternoon we run through the sprinkler and then we all make dinner together and clean up together.

Notice that I'm suggesting your children be involved in making meals and cleaning up. These are essential life skills and there's no reason children of all ages can't play a role. Two year olds can't make much of a contribution, but set them up on a safety stool to "wash" plastic-ware so they start feeling like part of the team. By the time they're three, they'll be helping set the table and tear the salad greens. By the time they're ten, they'll be able to make an entire dinner! Make it a fun time of day and your kids will come to enjoy it. 

3. Commit to de-stressing and just enjoying your life this summer.

Kids pick up our attitudes. If you're stressed, they'll be stressed, and they'll fight with each other and drive you crazy. Even if you have to work, can you find a way to dial down your stress for the summer? And don't you deserve a delicious summer as much as your children do? Your positive attitude will create a relaxed, happy mood in your house.

4. Help your child develop a healthy relationship with time that includes the important life skill of being comfortable with their own company, without technology. Time is, after all, what life is made of.  For more on why it's good for kids to have a chance to be bored, click here.

5. Encourage your child to try something new this summer.

There's no time like the summer to dabble, experiment, and play with creativity. Maybe she wants to try painting, or learn to play the guitar, or build something with a hammer and nails. Maybe he wants to try writing a short story or learn how to throw a frisbee well. New activities encourage brain development and build your child's focus, frustration management and impulse control. For more on nurturing your child's creativity, click here.

6. Strictly limit technology to certain times of the day.

When kids are bored and it's hot outside, screen time has a way of swallowing up all their time. It may be a good babysitter, but we all know that's not what kids need. The more you limit screen time, the better kids get at finding creative things to do with their time -- and the less they bug you to watch TV or play computer games. (Your Age-by-Age Guide to Screen-Free Activities Your Child Can Do With Minimal Supervision )

7. Institute daily reading time.

Books open the imagination, make time disappear, and give kids a wholesome alternative to screens. (Reading is also highly correlated with school achievement.) Reading to your child develops a love of stories and books, which is what starts them wanting to read on their own. For more on helping your child learn to love reading, click here. For a starting list of great books that you can take with you to the library with your child, click here.

8. Why not use this summer to develop more emotional intelligence in your family?

Most parents love "teaching" their children lessons about how things work and how to behave. But the most important learning your child does is about emotions. For instance:

  • How can they express their needs without lashing out at the other person?
  • How can they tolerate uncomfortable feelings, so they can manage them?
  • How can they have difficult conversations and come out of them feeling closer?
  • When they feel angry, or sad, or anxious, or bored, what should they do?

Why not use the time you spend with your child to start talking more about emotions and help them develop more emotional literacy? I'm not suggesting a lecture, but a conversation, where you ask questions and listen more than you talk.

If you need some guidance on where to begin, there are lots of articles like this one on the Peaceful Parent Happy Kids website, some good questions to get your child talking here, and some good books to read and discuss here. And be sure to build as much roughhousing and laughter as possible into your days!

9. Plan some fantastic family memories.

Don’t wait. The key is to get out a calendar and schedule the things you really want to do.

Start at dinner tonight by asking everyone what they love most about summer. Then ask each person to pick one thing for the whole family to do that will make their summer complete. Set parameters before you start. For instance, you might agree that there will be no hotel stays, and the total cost of each activity must be under $40 (or whatever your budget is.) Here’s a list of ideas to get you started:

  • Rent bikes and follow a local bike path you’ve never been on. Stop for ice cream cones.
  • Go camping. Go hiking, catch fireflies, roast marshmallows, sing songs, snuggle on a blanket and watch the fire together.
  • Go tubing. Or canoeing. Or rafting. Be sure to cool off by getting wet.
  • Buy a badminton set and have a weekend tournament complete with a barbecue.
  • Have a dinner picnic and watch the sunset (bring the bug repellent).
  • Go to the beach and spend the day body surfing. When you get cold, collect shells and use them to decorate your sand castle.
  • Go to bed really early some night when you’re tired, and get up for the sunrise. Bring donuts and thermoses of hot chocolate and coffee.
  • Set up a water festival in your backyard that includes dunking, running through sprinklers, a water balloon toss game, a slip ‘n slide, and a water balloon fight. Celebrate the end of the day with watermelon.
  • Make homemade ice cream. (You don't need an ice cream maker, just rock salt and plastic bags; there are recipes online.)
  • Buy a mess of crabs and cook them up with some corn on the cob. Let the kids stay up late playing tag as it gets dark.

You get the idea. Encourage your family to come up with their ideal scenarios and make a few of them happen. Be sure to toast the family member who chose the activity, and take lots of pictures.

10. The last week of the summer, print out all your summer photos and make a Summer album.

Have a little family celebration on Labor Day weekend where you look at the album together and talk about everybody's favorite parts of the summer. Remind each other of the things that seemed like disasters at the time but are now funny (every family has some of those!) If you do this every summer, you’ll create precious family heirlooms. Not to mention a family tradition that will have your kids bragging about how fantastic summer was in their families, and begging to look at the Summer albums with you every Labor Day -- even once they’re teenagers!