DIY Summer Camp

It’s a strange new “normal” we find ourselves in this summer.  It feels like we’ve been waiting in place since mid-March.  Yet nature continues to move forward.  So while I feel like it’s still the week before Spring Break, the trees all have leaves, the rain is almost done for the season, and the vegetable garden has tiny tomatoes on summer tomato plants.

Every summer activity I had planned for the kids (and the family) has been cancelled, so my summer calendar stretches out as empty as the last three months.  

Disappointed and desperate for something to look forward to, I decided we’d design our own summer camp. I have declared this the summer of “Family Camp” and invited the kids to help me design our own summer camp experience.

In mid-June, we had a family meeting to brainstorm things we’d all like to do together this summer and decide on a ‘schedule’ for ‘camp’.  We amassed a long list of things that includes typical summer camp activities, time for reading and quiet time alone, and activities that will take us out of the house and off on an adventure.

At our planning meeting, we decided camp would run Tuesday through Friday, for three to four hours of the day. The brainstorming was so successful that I ended the meeting there before anyone could change their mind about how much incredible fun we were going to have together all summer. (Did I mention my kids are 12, 14, and 17?)

Our first official week of Family Camp arrived, but I had made camping reservations along the Oregon coast.  So we went camping for three days.  It wasn’t the day camp we’d planned, but we had an excellent time together doing something away from the house where we’ve been sequestered since March.

Before the next week started, we had a second planning meeting. This time we got more specific about what we’d do and when we’d do it. We’ll do this at the beginning of each week so that we have a schedule that everyone can look to if they forget what has been planned.

Each of the kids advocated for the activities they wanted to do during the week ahead and we were able to design a week with something for everyone and no complaints. I think we’ve learned some social skills while being home-bound for four months.

So Family Camp begins with bowling in the morning and some Khan Academy in the afternoon.  The following day we are having a friendly Nailed It! baking contest.  (We haven’t decided if it will be a team sport or if we’ll end up with four of the same cakes. I’ll let the group decision-making process decide that.)  We’ll bake together in the morning, then decorate and hold a friendly competition after lunch.

Next, we’ll be at home, playing board games and doing some reading.  And on our final day of camp this week, we’ll get out and hike.  My oldest did the research to find an easy day hike about an hour away.  We’ll pack a lunch to take with us and then picnic during the 5-mile hike in the Oregon woods.

It will be fun, but from a parenting perspective the most important part of this whole process hasn’t been the activities themselves, really, but the commitment we are making to each other.  To show up.  To have a schedule, with things planned and an agreement that we will do them together. Despite the empty calendar, we now have a plan.

If you’d like to plan your own “Family Camp” this summer, here are some of the things  on our list:

Field Trips: the beach, berry picking, swimming in a lake, overnight camping, hiking

Bowling (we joined the summer league at Highland Bowl)

Playing our violins and keyboard

Learn to play the guitar

Khan Academy 


Bible Study

Cooking/Baking together

Board games


Naps/Quiet time

Make a plan and have fun!


Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at:

Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:


At school they need to double down on:


Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year-olds, their older sisters continue to put them –new acquisitions and old favorites alike– in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.


Use Your Words

“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?

Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, suddenly burst into tears, are uncooperative with our requests, or are mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.

  • The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
  • The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, tell us about them.

A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons, it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, body language, and ultimately with words.

As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:

Four-year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)

Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”

Four-year-old: (crying loudly.)

Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”

Four-year-old: “YES!”

(Hugging ensues).




Seven-year-old: (Sitting at the table, making loud huffing sounds.)

Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”

Seven-year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”

Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”

Seven-year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”

(Eating ensues.)




Nine-year-old: “I’m COLD.”

Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”

Nine-year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”

Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”

Nine-year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”

Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”

Nine-year-old: “But I’m COLD.”

Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”

(Dressing ensues.)


Free, and Priceless

This week’s guest post is by Julie Whitus. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

The other night I stopped and looked at my children playing. My youngest was dancing with a lampshade on her head while my nine-year-old was singing into a remote control. Then, my 11-year-old popped out of the clothes hamper to surprise me. I laughed to myself thinking how ridiculous this might have looked to an outsider while admiring my children for their imaginations.

I thought back to my childhood and played back some happy memories. I remember walking outside in the rain, catching earthworms for fishing, playing in a cardboard house, climbing trees, painting the garage with my dad, and exploring the empty field by my house. I realize that all these memories had two things in common: 1. My parents were spending time with me, and 2. these activities were free.

As a parent of six, I know that having children is costly. However, spending time with them isn’t. I have to admit that sometimes I get caught up with wanting to give my children expensive toys or take them on grandiose outings. The reality is I really cannot afford it and would regret it later on. As I evaluate my childhood I realize that the most memorable moments involved my parents spending quality time with me for free.

Right now, with summer vacation coming up, I am challenging myself to schedule time for free activities. Also, I challenge myself to forget the guilt of being unable to afford Disneyland, to picture my childrens’ carefree play with a lampshade and a remote control, and remember that making memories costs nothing and is priceless.

I encourage parents to respond to this blog by posting some low-cost summer activities that your family has enjoyed.

Julie Whitus is a Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.


As a father with four daughters, there are certain things I have experienced that are unique to my situation. Some of them were expected and simply come with the territory. Others came as quite a surprise. The following is a list of some of the more prominent revelations; I’ll leave you to decide which is which. Feel free to share your own experiences.

It is possible to wash more than one entire load of pink clothing.

A lot of toilet paper is used. I mean, a lot.

Hearing “Just wait until they’re teenagers” (coupled with “You’re going to need a shotgun”).

Don’t get me wrong: they like to watch a backhoe tearing up the pavement just like anyone else. But the princess thing cannot be avoided. There will be princesses.

Beard-related kiss goodnight injuries (self-reported).

Bathroom time-sharing has not yet become an issue. But. I’m starting to imagine what it will be like, and I’m a little scared.

Explaining that, while it is not considered polite for little girls to burp in public, that was very impressive.

Not always knowing the difference between tights, leggings, and pants.

Ponytails I can do. Braids are still in process.

Explaining that of course you can be President someday. But you have to be 40.

The “No/Don’t” Problem

There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut, again and again, myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes, and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.

Happy Helping Hands

A friend and I were chatting the other day about how we are trying to find our summer rhythm at our houses. Summer brings with it a nice change of pace and opportunities to be outside so much more. I find myself relaxing a little more as a parent in the summer as the weather seems to give me an extra dose of  energy and patience. Although I love summer and the fun it brings, I have made a realization during the last couple of weeks as we have been enjoying summer to the fullest, while at the same balancing all of the demands of life. My simple realization is that my kids need to help more with chores. With my children at home so much more of the day with either my husband or myself, messes abound and I feel like I can’t keep up! When I’m not working or  swimming at the pool or river with my kids, I find myself instead swimming in a sea of laundry or trying to avoid my messy kitchen (and wishing that it would magically clean itself one of these days).

While in the process of trying to devise a plan of how I can help make chores a more consistent part of our routine, I came across this article from a New York Times blog. I can very much relate to the author, and from conversations I’ve had with many friends throughout the years, I know that this is something that parents  with children of all ages deal with. I think that it is a very normal struggle to figure out how to help children learn responsibility within a family while at the same time trying at best to minimize the whining and avoidance tactics that children can masterfully develop. Many of us start new routines and then find ourselves having a hard time sticking with them after things don’t go as well as originally hoped for. Sometimes plan A turns quickly into a plan B.

Although I am still in the process of finding what works best for my own family, I know that there are things that  have helped us in the past. If you are looking for a starting place to help your children learn how to help more at home, here are a few helpful tips to consider:

  • Remember that it is easier to be consistent when we set realistic expectations for what our kids can reasonably accomplish. If your children aren’t helping very much around the house, start small. It is better to be consistent with a few simple chores than to start off with too high of expectations and not follow through at all. As children experience success in the small tasks, we as parents can slowly increase the amount and difficulty of chores given as they get older.
  • Let your children have a say in what they do. While certain chores may be non-negotiable like a child having to clean his/her own room, take the time to listen to what he might like to take ownership over. For example, my six-year-old really wanted to be in charge of cleaning up the mudroom. He likes to organize the shoes and even help mop the tile floor. Children will at times learn to do and follow through with chores that they don’t enjoy (I still can’t say that I enjoy scrubbing toilets), but it can help reduce the struggle when the task is something that a child enjoys helping with.
  • Break more difficult tasks into pieces. If I send my children into their messy rooms and simply tell them to clean everything, the whining usually quickly beings. If I instead break the job into many small jobs, they usually have a better attitude. I might start by saying, “Clean up all of the books and put them on the bookshelf.” As my children continue to check in with me, I can keep adding on another piece to the puzzle until the whole room is clean.
  • Model how to perform a task. While we might take the time to show a seven-year-old how to fold a shirt, his version of folding might look very different than my ideal for awhile.  When children try hard but still have a hard time with a chore, it is important to praise the effort. We do not need perfection but we do expect effort.
  • Make chores fun! This is an easy one that I forget too often. Do a race with your children to clean up the playroom or turn on a fun dancing song and see if they can have the room tidied up before the song ends.
  • Remember that even young children can help with chores. A three-year-old can help set the table while you are making dinner and then carry his/her plate back to the kitchen after eating.
  • Let you children know that their chores must be done before certain fun things get to happen. For example, it might be standard in your house that your nine-year-old water the flowers outside before she may go and ask a neighbor to play.

I would love to hear what has worked well for your families when trying to establish and maintain chore responsibilities.

Gabe helping me plant our garden this last spring.

Gabe helping me plant our garden this last spring.

Sibling Squabbles – Teachable Moments Worth the Effort

Our family is sitting down for a delicious Memorial Day barbeque feast with all of the fixings and something is just not right. The food looks great, smells yummy, and tastes delicious but both my husband and I are finding it difficult to enjoy our meal. Why, you ask? Well, our two oldest children are having a very difficult time tolerating each other at the dinner table.

“Scoot over!”, my eldest commands.

“Why should I?”, my middle child retorts.

“Mom! He will not scoot over and give me more room to eat.”, complains my eldest urgently.

“I am as far over over as I can be.”, replies my 8-year-old. “You don’t need any more space!”

In a situation such as this, my husband and I feel willing to do almost anything to get some resolution in order to enjoy our meal (we worked hard preparing it and were ready to reap the mouth-watering rewards). However, we both know better. This is what many parent educators would call a “teachable moment”- a time to use the current circumstances as a springboard for teaching our children how to compromise and communicate effectively in order to solve their differences, no matter how petty they may seem to us at the time.

First, it is best to understand the causes of sibling rivalry. Then we can begin to work on more specific ways to help our children resolve their conflicts appropriately and effectively. We must also consider the ages and developmental stages that our children are in at the time. The younger the child, the more they will need our help and coaching when dealing with sibling conflict. Once we begin this process, as our children mature and use the skills we are teaching them they will gain the specific conflict-resolution skills  necessary to successfully resolve sibling conflicts with less help from us.  Additionally, these skills will help our children successfully navigate adult interpersonal conflict they will encounter in the future. In other words, if we put the energy into our parenting efforts now it has benefits (for us as well as our children) later on.

University of Michigan Health System, has posted a wonderful article titled, Sibling Rivalry. It is packed with useful information on understanding the causes of sibling rivalry and the things parents can do to help our children resolve their differences effectively.

Reading the article has put our family on the path to stress-free family dinners that everyone can enjoy.