Parent's survival guide: How to entertain a brood of bored kids during the summer holidays

It's that time of the year: school's out and the summer hols are here again. But how do you cope with a brood of bored kids during the long, long vacation? Here, Deborah Ross offers a tired parent's survival guide – plus, we present a practical compendium of things to do.
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The Independent Online

It's the summer holidays, the schools are closed and they will not re-open until September, no matter how hard you pound on the doors or rap on the windows. This is truly unbelievable considering how dumb children are and, therefore, how much schooling they need (although don't pretend you've never played this to your advantage: "No, darling, mummy didn't steal your birthday money to pay the cleaner. It was those naughty elves. Naughty, naughty, naughty elves").

In fact, if they are ever going to come up to speed with adults, it would make a lot more sense to keep children in school at all times with the option of a half-day on Christmas Day should the parents feel up to it, which is by no means a given, as being a parent is very tiring and may be the most tiring thing you ever do. Indeed, as a recent poll showed only too clearly, being a parent is much more tiring than, say, lying down for long stretches reading Heat and counting your money, which is what most parents would be doing otherwise.

The average cost of raising a child is said to be £120,000 and don't pretend you've never thought: "I could be driving a Porsche. I could be holidaying in the Maldives. I could be driving to the Maldives in my Porsche at this very moment but, hey, aren't we having fun rubbing peanut butter all over our faces and drawing up the walls?" You may ask why people who think like this even have children but the fact is this: hey, we get pregnant too.

Do not despair, though. Yes, the summer holidays are here – and No, the schools will not re-open, no matter how hard you pound, rap or try to force the windows – but here, at least, we have responded to your most common worries:

I have two active boys who, I know, will want to be ferried from this activity to that activity for the entire six weeks. I'm not a taxi driver and am dreading spending most of the summer performing as if I am. What should I do?

You are right. You are not a taxi-driver, unless you are a fat old fella and you drive something bulky and black with an orange light on top in which case, alas, you are. The trouble with today's kids, though, is that they expect judo and swimming and football and guitar and going to Tom's house and, therefore, simply do not stay in watching TV and playing on the Playstation enough. You may even try saying: "What do you think we bought the TV and the Playstation for? To gather dust?" It may be worth purchasing a new violent game to hook them in, or at least try to get them addicted to Hollyoaks, which appears to run all day every day, culminating in late-night spin-offs with titles like Hollyoaks: The Blow Job Years. You might never need to go anywhere ever again!

Most summer-holiday activities seem to be geared towards younger children. What about teenagers?

It's worth setting out the ground rules from day one. This may involve putting up signs around the house which say: "I am not an ATM"; "Do not ask for credit as refusal often offends (not that I care)"; " Today's specials are 'take it' or 'leave it' "; "Don't take that tone with me"; "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"; "I've ruined your life. That's rich"; "not later, NOW!" and "I'm not a taxi driver unless I drive something black and bulky with an orange light on top in which case, alas, I am". That should sort them. If it doesn't, threaten to wear tight leather, a push-up bra and talk a great deal about your sex life next time a friend of theirs comes round. This should bring them back into line quite neatly.

Apparently, parents spend an average of £1,200 per child keeping them amused during the summer holidays. This is way beyond my means. Any ideas for cheap or, even better, free activities to keep them entertained?

Nope. Well, yes, there is the park. It's free, it's healthy, and once the kids have robbed you of coat and jumper for goal-posts, you can freeze on a bench while wishing you were dead, and the sooner the better. Far better to throw money around, even if it does mean you have to go into debt. A good bet is one of those art cafés where the children paint ceramics which are later fired. They are actually excellent value for money if you don't factor in that a side plate can mysteriously transmute into a £70 bill. They can also provide a good afternoon's entertainment, particularly for Control Freak Mum, who is surely in her element. It is: "Not that colour!" And: "You're ruining it!" And: "You obviously don't know anything about a ballerina's correct proportions!" And: "Oh,give it here!" The Non-Control Freak Mum won't bother to pick up the ceramics once they have been fired, making it even better value for money. Alternatively, there is also Chessington World of Asbos, which will also make you wish you were dead – the sooner the better – but at least the benches are more comfortable.

Our family holidays abroad have never been that successful and I'm beginning to wonder if they are worth the money? Are they?

Yes, of course. Come on, why stay at home bickering and not getting on when you can all drive thousands of miles across France to spend two weeks together bickering and not getting on? You know it makes sense. It's tempting to go on separate holidays but the kids will always track you down in the end. Here are the things no child has ever been heard to say on holiday: "My, these swimming goggles are a perfect fit"; " I'll just stand still while you apply the sun cream"; "I think I've had enough ice-creams for one day"; "I'm bushed, I think I'll turn in"; and "Can't we just squeeze in one more medieval church?" Your best bet is to stay put but wear a basket over your shoulder whenever you go to the shops, which is all the English ever do in France anyway. This makes a lot more sense.

My young child wants a TV in her bedroom. I've resisted for months but with the next six weeks to fill, I'm tempted. Any advice?

Apparently, 42 per cent of toddlers now have televisions in their bedrooms. This is a truly shocking statistic. What are the parents of the other 58 per cent thinking of? Come on, we live in the First World! Get a grip!

Do you agree that boredom is the greatest gift you can give a child?

The trouble with boredom is that it is quite boring. A telly in the bedroom is better. It can also be educational. A child who watches a lot of telly may turn round one day as you are doing the laundry and say: "Mum. Why don't you use Ace? It's tough on stains but kind enough for delicates" – and maybe you will use Ace and find it is tough on stains and kind enough for delicates. The thing about children is they can often teach you almost as much as you can teach them, but not quite because you are the grown-up and can simply say, when pressed: "Because I say so." Never explain further as it may make you more tired than you already are.

Has it ever occurred to you that you are bitter and twisted and not nice at all?

Yes, but that, I'm afraid, is what having children does to you. End of Story.

How to survive car journeys

1. Get a good selection of children's audio CDs. The complete set of Harry Potter may put you to sleep, but it's much more likely to keep the children quiet. And make sure you pull over every hour or so to give the children a quick blast of fresh air.

2. Make getting there part of the experience. Prior to set-off, give each passenger a photocopied map of your planned route. Pack a selection of coloured pens and pencils and perhaps some extra paper, tinfoil and glue; any tools with which to decorate the map. Challenge the children to create a visual representation of the journey, sketching in significant landmarks along the way.

3. Devise a quiz. Quizzes provide a great distraction. Categories can vary endlessly, from history to pop music, or Ancient Egypt to film trivia, so all ages can join in. In addition to time spent conducting the quiz, devising questions and producing buzz cards can occupy several hours. Let the children decide on categories themselves, or set them yourself so they can research suitable questions.

4. Play the Alphabet Game. The subject matter can be adapted to anything you so wish. Imagine the topic is bands. The first person names a band beginning with A, eg: Abba; the next person names one beginning with B, and so on, with each person giving their answer within five seconds of the last. This continues until someone fails to give an answer within the time period.

5. Make up your own memory game. The first player starts with "I went to the shop and there I bought..." and inserts an item of their choice, eg: "cabbage". The second repeats the sentence: "I went to the shop ... I bought" and repeats the first item, before adding their own to the list. The third does the same, adding another item. Each player must recall the shopping list in the correct order.

10 great days out

1. Cadbury World, Birmingham

Sample flowing streams of chocolate, explore the rich history of the chocolate industry; witness chocolate rain and grow your own virtual cocoa beans at the interactive gallery; and recover with a cup of hot stuff while the kids burn off steam in the novelty playground.

Adults £13, children £9.95. Family Rate £40 per day. Advanced booking recommended. www.cadburyworld.co.uk, 0845 450 3599

2. Fossil Hunting, Isle of Wight

Claimed to be the best place in Europe for discovering dinosaur remains, the Isle of Wight has more than 15 specimens known to its shores, dating from the earliest part of the Cretaceous period. The Dinosaur Farm Museum runs a selection of events for kids, including a fossil hunt on the beach.

Adult £3.50, children £2.50. Family rate £10; www.dinosaur-farm.co.uk, 01983 740 844

3. Drusilla's Park, East Sussex

The 100-plus species inhabiting Drusilla's fun-park are not the only attraction. Including an explorer's lagoon, monkey kingdom, Amazon –themed play complex and jungle-style golf, Drusilla's caters for kids of all ages.

Adults from £10.70, children from £9.70; www.drusillas.co.uk, 01323 874 100

4. Coram's Field Playground, London

This child-friendly, seven-acre retreat just around the corner from the British Museum provides extensive lawns for play-time and family picnics. Artificial-turf sports pitches, paddling pool, sandpits and a pets' corner will provide a perfect setting for a post-museum blast-off.

www.coramsfields.org, 0207 837 6138

5. Kylie Exhibition, Manchester

"Especially for you" is the name of the exhibition of one of the most notorious wardrobes in pop – and now it has arrived in Manchester from the Arts Centre in Melbourne. Covet Kylie's designer collections or simply admire those gold lamé hotpants.

Manchester Art Gallery to 2 September. Free entry; www.manchestergalleries.org, 0161 235 8888

6. Snowdon Mountain Railway

Starting at Llanberis station, this two-hour trip takes you through woodland and past waterfalls, before witnessing the dramatic views below Snowdon.

From £7.50 for adults and £5.50 for children; www.snowdonrailway.co.uk, 0870 458 0033

7. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Eat your heart out, Indiana Jones – this museum contains a fascinating array of findings from across the globe, mainly donated by explorer and archaeologist General Pitt Rivers in 1884. From a Tahitian mourner's costume dating from 1773 and masks from Japanese Noh dramas, to full-sized sailing craft and tools and weapons; objects are displayed in cluttered cases, with original handwritten labels.

www.prm.ox.ac.uk, 01865 270 927. Free entry

8. Roald Dahl Museum, Bucks

The life and work of everyone's favourite storyteller is bought to life – explore a trail of the writer's hometown and inspiration for some of his tales. In addition to two fun- and fact-packed biographical galleries, there's also an interactive story centre and a sheltered courtyard for listening to stories. One-off events include chocolate decorating classes between July and September and George's Marvellous Experiments on 25 July.

www.roalddahlmuseum.org, 01494 892 192

9. Tropiquaria Animal and Adventure, Somerset

This newly redecorated aquarium at Watchet has a historical Radio Museum, an outdoors pirate ship and indoor play castle, café and ship-shaped snack bar.

Adults £6.95, children £5.95. Family rate (two children, two adults) £24.95; www.dayoutwiththekids.co.uk, 01984 640 688

10. Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh

Venture 15,000 million years back in time, before embarking on a quest into an unknown future, where you'll be asked to make decisions that may affect the world as we know it. Recover from your travels in the tropical rainforest, or battle with the elements in one of the most remote environments in the world. With simulation this stimulating, dare the kids to suggest that learning is dull.

www.dynamicearth.co.uk; 10am–6pm daily. Adults £8.95, children £5.75

Time to get creative

1. Make your own newspaper

Producing a family newspaper is a great way of processing thoughts and recording events. Even the most mundane of affairs can be included and jazzed-up using illustrations, photographs, letters, games and creative writing. It's a great way for kids to work together as a team – and the end product gives you a precious memento with which to embarrass them a few years down the line.

www.familyeducation.com

2. Treasure Hunt

Devise a fiendish hunt with cryptic clues that will get them really thinking. The hunt could take place indoors, in the garden or in your local park. Although it involves initial effort in terms of devising questions, you can sit back and relax while they get to work. Tip: make sure there's a desirable reward – the children will work harder.

3. Book Club

Who says book clubs are just for adults? Pooling ideas and discussing respective interpretations will improve their listening skills and encourages debate. Not to mention the benefits of the actual reading. Suggest that your child spends a certain amount of time reading each night to prepare.

4. Homemade Instruments

If you have musical aspirations for your little darling, then why not get them to create their very own orchestra, from rain sticks to cardboard-box guitars and bottle-cap tambourines – all using everyday household objects. For details visit www.familyfun.com

5. Finger Puppets

Be it a family of mice or a complete reconstruction of the cast of Neighbours, producing finger puppets stretches the kids' imaginations. You could also suggest they build a mini-stage using shoeboxes. Younger children will need help with scissors. For ideas visit www.freekidcrafts.com

Compiled by Charlotte Philby

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