Let them make pancakes: Helping kids flourish during a camp-less, COVID-19 summer

Why we should release our vision of an "optimal" summer.

The announcements have started rolling in: camps are canceling or moving online. Public pools and town recreation programs will remain closed. Vacations are quickly becoming staycations. It’s a lot to take in for already-stressed out parents struggling with childcare – but there’s hope! In our June 1st Action Network Live! webinar, Audrey Monke and Lenore Skenazy reminded parents and caregivers that it’s okay to let our kids figure things out for themselves, especially this summer. Using camp counselor techniques, positive parenting, and encouragement to let kids be kids, our presenters let us know that while this summer might not be perfect, it can be great for our children.

To hear their conversation and all of their thoughtful suggestions, you can – and should! – watch the whole webinar here. In addition, we’ve captured some of our favorite pieces of advice here:


Campify your home this summer.

As the owner and director of Gold Arrow Camp, Audrey knows a lot can be learned from camp counselors, who can somehow turn teeth-brushing, cabin-cleaning, and applying sunscreen ten times into joyful activities by adding a song, a game, or simply doing it alongside them! This summer, embrace your inner camp counselor (and maybe your inner camper, too!) and think about how you can make things a little extra playful.

One strategy Audrey suggested is to establish a “camp” routine: have an “assembly” in the morning to let kids know when they will need to be extra independent and when grown-ups are available for play. At night, have a “campfire meeting” – whether at the dinner table, snuggled on the couch, or even by an actual campfire – to discuss the day’s highs and lows and to discuss the next day’s events. “Older kids might roll their eyes – don’t worry, push through!” Audrey assured viewers. “Being given the opportunity to share and be listened to is really important, and it doesn’t always happen” she said. And when parents share with kids, it helps the whole family feel more connected!


Create a theme for your summer.

To help give this strange summer a bit more structure, Audrey suggests creating a theme for your family! Last summer at Gold Arrow Camp, campers spent their time thinking about “filling buckets,” or being kind to others. Your family could spend the summer focusing on gratitude, being creative, or even something as simple as learning how to cook! “It doesn’t have to be super profound!” Audrey told us.

Think of activities that connect to the theme and encourage your kids to pursue them. And even if you don’t have something planned, you can tell them to find something theme-related when they’re bored. Even better, plan some family fun centered around your theme! By drawing pictures, baking bread, or even just reading together, you can draw your family closer.


Let them make pancakes.

As adults, we often know how to do things faster and better than our kids (most of the time!). It can be frustrating, and even fear-inducing to let our children do things for themselves. But, as Lenore says, “We always think there is some risk-free alternative. But there is risk in not letting them have some adventures!” So, Lenore suggests, commit to letting your kids try things out by themselves this summer! Making their own breakfast is a great start. As one kiddo told us after taking the Let Grow independence challenge, “I’m pretty independent ‘cause I make my own breakfast and that feels good.”


Let them do nothing.

While establishing a consistent routine and having parameters around what can and can’t be done during the summer days is essential, the majority of the day can be filled with self-directed, independent play. “Out of boredom grows self-direction,” says Lenore. “There’s something to be said to getting off this hamster wheel of productivity – let them kick back a little and waste some time!” In fact, Lenore reminds us that many of us have fond memories about being locked out of the house until dinner time, left to create our day on our own. Even if kids have to stay indoors this summer, unstructured time is a gift for our children and a chance to let their imaginations soar, creativity reign, and bodies flourish.


Let go of your vision of the perfect summer.

“Optimal is hard,” Audrey told us, “especially right now.” Instead of structuring every minute of the day, kids will thrive with some space to be bored and do nothing! As an adult, you can’t be 100% present for everything that’s going on, and it’s not necessary to plan every moment. So, let it go. The kids will be fine.

  • Have multiple children? Give older children the opportunity to be a “junior counselor.” Invite them to plan one hour of the day for their siblings (whether it’s setting up an obstacle course in the back yard or reading aloud after lunch). This will help to encourage responsibility. 
  • Only children? Make this the summer of discovery! Ask them what they’ve always wanted to learn how to do, or about a project they want to take on. Try and support that endeavor as much as you can, with lots of time for independent practice.
  • Stubborn kids? Wonderful! They’ll be strong, capable adults. Give them opportunities to feel powerful by doing things on their own. Try: “I know you want to play with me right now, but I have to work. What’s one thing you can do all by yourself for 30 minutes?” And when everyone’s feeling calm and happy, have a conversation with them about firm boundaries around when you are available and how to communicate in non-emergency situations.
  • Worried about the mess? The fear of total destruction of one’s household when left to the kids is real. But, kids can also be part of the clean-up process. Lenore shared an example of a 30-minute power clean: “How much can we clean in 30 minutes?” Crank up the tunes and make it fun, camp-style.

Summer this year will be different for so many families. Find ways to say “yes” to your children this summer by encouraging them to be like kids at camp: free, independent, and responsible. Lenore told us about a single mom who was struggling pre-COVID with her hard-to-wake-up daughter’s morning routine, always feeling rushed as she made her daughter cereal and yelled when it was time to go. Yet, when schools closed and both were at home, the child began to get up before the mom. She made her own breakfast and got ready for the day. Then, she also would make breakfast for her mom – cooking toast and buttering it! “The thing that is remarkable to me about this moment is that this toast-buttering child was inside this child all along, and we wouldn’t have seen it (mom or kid) if it weren’t for this extremely weird break.” So, this summer, let them butter the toast. Let them make pancakes. Let kids be kids.

About the Presenters: 

Audrey Monke has owned and directed Gold Arrow Camp in Lakeshore, California for 34 years, shares resources for parents and professionals on her Sunshine Parenting website and podcast, and is the author of Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults, which offers strategies for bringing the “magic” of camp home. 

Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, is the co-founder and president of Let Grow, a nonprofit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, where she oversees school programs, an online community, and legislative efforts promoting the idea that when adults step back, kids step up, growing resourceful, resilient – and ready for the world.

This resource is part of our series on navigating the COVID-19 pandemic:

Action Network Live! is a project of CCFC’s Children’s Screen Time Action Network, and brings together experts, parents, and caregivers to talk about critical issues around kids and technology. Learn more about joining the Network, or sign up for our email list to be notified about upcoming events!