Summer holidays: How to cut out the stress

Keep your children happy and occupied at one of the many activity programmes around the country
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The Independent Travel

School's out and children across the land rejoice at the prospect of the long summer days stretching ahead. But those very same long summer days are a source of considerable anxiety, stress and expense for parents as they juggle childcare, work and family budgets.

With the recession hitting family incomes, new research from the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) shows nearly 60 per cent of parents are worried about the cost of keeping children entertained during the summer holidays.

Parents are in a difficult position, caught between work and childcare: a quarter of parents are forced to take time off work to entertain their children while 36 per cent feel guilty about not spending quality time with their children.

"This can be a very stressful time for parents, because they don't want their children sitting in front of screens all summer, but they're also reluctant to let them out unsupervised," says education and childcare expert Sue Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood.

"If there's nowhere for them to go, the kids do spend too much time in front of screens, absorbing a lot of damaging marketing messages and not getting the creative and social play they need to grow up bright and balanced. Junk play is just as bad as junk food."

But given the costs of quality childcare and the exorbitant prices charged by many family-friendly attractions, just how is a budget-minded parent to fill the summer holidays? It may sound strange, but one answer may be to head back to school. Over 80 per cent of schools now offer access to extended services over the summer holidays, often teaming up with other local organisations such as the police or local authorities, to provide a budget-friendly range of fun and loosely educational activities.

Loughborough Primary School in Brixton, south London offers a wide range of activities over the summer, including cooking, sports, and arts and crafts clubs for 3-8 year olds; while 9-16 year olds can enjoy DJ-ing, fashion and trips out to attractions and theme parks. The programme costs just £10 a week, which includes food and entrance fees, which is very good value particularly when compared to the typical cost of five days' childcare in inner London.

Critically, these extended services providers have had the good sense to steer clear of being educational, and offer activities that should appeal even to hard-to-please tweenies and teenagers. In the Temple Newsam Halton neighbourhood of east Leeds, for example, there are dance, circus skills and world music workshops for 8-13 year olds, and barbecues, chill-out days and urban art sessions for those 13 and over – all of it free of charge. Call your local school for details of provision in your area.

"Even if your school isn't doing anything, they should be able to signpost you to other providers in the area," says Richard Thornhill, head of Loughborough Primary School, which offers extended services to all young people in the area, regardless of their connection to the school.

Summer is a great time to get involved in sport. The Government's free swimming programme is an opportunity for all under 16s to make use of their local swimming pools free of charge. Many local authorities put on free sports sessions over the summer holidays, ranging from football, tennis and cricket to softball, volleyball and track.

Summer holidays are also a great time to explore the countryside. Our national parks are a great resource for country walks, picnics, paddling in rivers or cycling along car-free trails, such as the scenic Tissington Trail in the Peak District. Wilderness Wood in east Sussex has something for all ages, from teddy-bear picnics and monster hunts (for 3-6 year olds) to castaway and woodland survival courses for older children ( www.wildernesswood.co.uk).

It's also a great time to visit your local farm and reconnect with the food chain: visit the Soil Association website for a list of open organic farms. Bruce McMichael, the editor of foodie magazine Taste ( www.tasteliving.co.uk), says farmers' markets and food festivals are a great way to get children out of doors and into new healthy eating habits.

"Older children can be resistant to spending time outdoors with their parents or younger siblings, but the lure of a chocolate fountain and burgers made with locally sourced meat is often enough encouragement for them to tag along," says McMichael. "And many food fairs are enclosed, allowing children to have a bit more freedom to run around."

Given that British summers are notoriously unreliable, it's worth having some indoors activities on the to-do list. Museums and art galleries can be a great resource for wet-weather days, and most are free to enter. The Natural History Museum and Science Museum in London are firm favourites with all ages, while the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has enough oddities and weirdness – a witch in a bottle, anyone? – to amuse even the most jaded teenager ( www.prm.ox.ac.uk)

The 3D theatre at the Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre near Manchester, home to the world famous Lovell radio telescope, is the launch pad for a space flight to Mars, zooming over Martian volcanoes and canyons (adults: £2, children 4-16: £1 – with the 3D theatre costing an extra £1 per person). Or why not revisit the Cold War years with a trip to an underground secret bunker in Cheshire to see how the Government planned to survive a nuclear attack (adults: £6.30, children 5-16: £4.50 www.hackgreen.co.uk). There are also bunkers in Fife and Essex.

Go even deeper underground at the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Wales with a trip down the mines, and learn about the coal industry from a real mine ( www.museumwales.ac.uk, free access, wear warm clothes). Or why not spook bored offspring with a trip to Bodmin Jail in Cornwall, which has some gruesome exhibits that explain the lives and imprisonment of the inmates. The prison dates back to 1776, but the last hanging took place as recently as 1909 ( www.bodminjail.org, adults: £5.50, children 5-16: £3.25).

Many art galleries now offer opportunities to get down and dirty among the exhibits. Tate Britain in London has a weekend art trolley, where children of all ages can make their own art, while Tate Liverpool's colour tent is a huge collaborative art project taking place in mid-August ( www.tate.org.uk ). Wolverhampton Art Gallery is running a comic diaries workshop in August, suitable for those aged 12 and up, inspired by the works of the illustrator James Nash. ( www.wolverhamptonart.org.uk )

Libraries are another source of summer activities. Most run rhyme-time and story-telling sessions for the very young. but there are also many events for older children. North Kensington Library in London is running a fantasy photography workshop for 9-11 and 12-14 year olds and a cartooning workshop for 11-14 year olds.

Lordswood Library in Chatham runs a table football tournament for 8-16 year olds. Libraries across Stoke-on-Trent are offering fantasy games workshops. There is also the 2009 summer reading challenge, this year called Quest Seekers, which gets children motivated to read with stickers, bookmarks, models and puzzles plus a medal and certificate for those who complete the quest. See www.questseekers.org.uk for more details.

It can also be a great time to introduce your offspring to the concept of work. A little work experience can go a long way to boosting confidence and broadening their knowledge of the outside world. It may even garner hard-working parents a little extra respect at the end of a long day.

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