What should I do with my kids during Summer?

This is the time of year that parents often begin to wonder what their kids will do for Summer Break.  It can be an exciting time for kids, but it can also cause feelings of anxiety for the family, without proper preparation and deliberate planning.  As professionals, here are some recommendations that we make to families as they prepare for summer. 

1.  If you are traveling, know that you will probably not be able to avoid the waiting and crowding, plan accordingly.

Have plenty of engaging activities available to your child during long drives in the car or airplane flights.  A stack of favorite books, stuffed animals, pretend characters from favorite movies, building blocks, a portable DVD player with a variety of preferred movies, an MP3 or CD player with favorite songs, drawing/art materials, and interactive videogames are good activities for kids, when you cannot give them your undivided attention.  Sing-a-long CDs, favorite books, guessing games, building blocks, drawing/art materials, and pretend play with toy characters are good activities when more interaction is possible.

Anticipate the fact that your kids may not want to engage in one activity for the entire time.  For example, a child may not want to read books for an entire 10-hour drive.  It would be a good idea to also have music, games, movies, and toys with you.  It is usually easier to keep all of these activities in a single, large bag, than it is to carry them separately.

2.  Make a detailed, written plan on a calendar or write out the family summer and/or summer vacation schedule on paper and post it for everyone to see.

For each activity, be specific about what you are doing, when you are doing it, whom you are doing it with, and how long it will take.  You should also write a “prep list” next to each scheduled event, so that you remember to bring everything that you might need.  Even “free time” should be noted as such on the schedule, with a beginning and end before the next activity.  Be sure to plan activities for the entire break and not just the days of celebration.

3.  Prepare, prepare, prepare, using words, pictures, real objects, and gestures.

Give your kids plenty of advance preparation for each event by talking about what details they can expect, showing them pictures (online images work well) or real objects as examples, and giving them a countdown to the time that you will leave.  For example, if you are taking your kids to a grocery store to shop, you would want to tell them what you will be buying, how long it will take, and maybe even show them pictures of that store online.  You would also count down your departure, from five minutes to one minute, saying each minute out loud (“5 minutes, 4 minutes, 3 minutes…”).  When the last minute is up, you might say, “Ok, time to put on our shoes and coats to go shopping!”, show them the picture of the grocery store again, and get in the car.  Also, if the trip is going to include the presence of a person the child does not see on a daily basis (such as a visiting relative), you may want to show the child a picture of that person, along with a reminder of who that person is and what her/his role will be during the trip.

4.  Use reinforcers to evoke the desired behavior.

For most trips/errands, it may help to offer your child a special reinforcer or reward for specific, desired behaviors displayed during the outing.  For example, before leaving you might say, “If you can read your books, help Mommy, and keep your hands inside the cart, you may have a box of raisins on the car ride home.”  Of course, you must then deliver on your promise or withhold the treat, depending on their behavior, while giving them the reasons why they did or did not earn the reinforcer.  If the behavior displayed is undesirable, you may tell them that they did not earn the “treat” this time, but they may try again next time. 

Remember that children will repeat whatever behavior earned them the reinforcer.  So, if you reward screaming and grabbing, the child will repeat those behaviors the next time and expect to still receive a treat.  Also, make sure to pick a reinforcer that the child really wants and can rarely access.  It should be something that can be immediately delivered after the desired behavior is displayed and that does not cause other complications in your schedule.  For example, a special toy or edible treat in the car might work well, whereas a trip to a theme park requires a great deal of planning and occurs too far into the future to be effective.

5.  Keep daily chore routines and household rules in place during summer.

It can be difficult for children to go from having minimal responsibilities for a week to having full days again when they return to school.  Although children are not attending school and may not have homework, finding basic, daily chores to put on the calendar/schedule will help to keep them active.  Age-appropriate tasks such as, making the bed, cleaning the bedroom/bathroom, taking out the trash, watering plants, and/or helping with the dishes after meals, are all productive jobs.  Even if children do not currently perform these tasks, vacations are a great time to teach a new skill. 

Of course, kids should earn small reinforcers (or rewards) after they complete these tasks.  The reinforcers could be a special edible treat, a preferred activity, or even just permission to move on to the rest of the day’s routine.

If social rules are relaxed too much over summer, it can cause children to feel anxious and push your boundaries, so keep them in place.  For example, if you have a rule against telling others to “Shut up!” during the school year, that rule should be enforced for the entire break.  You may need to impose consequences, such as the temporary loss of a privilege, to remind children to engage in respectful behavior.

6.  Look for specific activities online, in the newspaper, in magazines, and in other resources.  Then, plan them out as described above.

Here is a short list of summer activity examples:

Outings and Camps:

Autism Society and AMC Theatres show Sensory Friendly Films:


Pretend City Children’s Museum:


The Zimmer Children’s Museum:


Los Angeles area summer camp guide from LAwithkids.com:


*Also check with your child’s school for day camp options that they may provide.

In-home activity examples:

Bake or buy plain cookies and decorate them with colored frosting.

Decorate your home with summer themed crafts as a family.  Even small children may create simple decorations with items such as ribbon, paper, markers, and imitation grass.

Ask your children to create artwork that will be put up for any visiting friends and relatives to see.  Markers, colored construction paper, glitter, glue, string, and beads are great materials to have around for these types of projects.  This gives you the chance to praise their accomplishments in front of others and helps them feel included in the festivities.

Travel activity examples:

Sing along to CDs or MP3s of children’s music in the car.

Read a long story to the children, that can be carried and continued when it is time to sit or wait.

Have plenty of portable and mess-free art supplies available: pads of blank paper, coloring books, washable markers, colored pencils, art apps on tablet devices, etc.

Allow your child to bring toy characters that they may use to engage in pretend play during the trip.

Listen to MP3 or CD players with headphones and favorite music, when kids need to wait quietly. 

Watch favorite movies on a portable DVD player.

Play handheld video games or use a tablet device (be sure to download plenty of apps in advance, so that there are a variety of choices even when you do not have access to the internet).  Make sure you tell them at the beginning of the trip that the video games will be put away once you arrive at your destination, and then remind them again when you are a few minutes away from the end of the journey.


Summer can be stressful, but with a little bit of effort and some solid planning it can be a time to grow together as a family.  If you feel like there is too little time for planning now, keep in mind that advance preparation can help to decrease the amount of time you will spend breaking up arguments between siblings or dealing with crying tantrums later.  Once you have a basic plan, go over the plan with the children and adults in your family to make sure they understand what they can expect and what will be expected of them.  Also, let them know that the schedule and rules are being put in place to help everyone enjoy the break and enjoy each other’s company!

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