10 Summer Activities to Help Teens Stay Healthy and Engaged

As communities begin to open up and families slowly emerge out of pandemic living, many parents have asked me, “What should my kids be doing this summer so they are prepared for the next school year?”

Parents worried about “learning loss” this year are wondering if they should be making kids do math worksheets, hiring a tutor, or packing summer schedules with academic enrichment classes.

I encourage families to take a step back and think about what we really want our kids to be learning and developing. Skills like critical thinking, creativity, resilience, and problem-solving are at the top of my list, not specific content like math formulas or vocabulary memorization.

three teens laughing
Dr. Denise Pope writes about the importance of “Playtime, Downtime, and Family time” for teens and preteens. (Twenty20 @jasmom1)

Kids may need extra time to hone their social skills

And particularly because so many kids have been isolated and away from group gatherings this year, they may need extra time to work on social-emotional skills such as communication, conflict resolution, empathy, and self-management. Honing these skills will help set our kids up for success next school year and for the rest of their lives.

This summer is a wonderful time to let kids practice social and emotional skills and to encourage a deep love of learning. For a student who may feel disengaged or behind academically after this school year, assigning extra academic work that is monotonous or boring may make learning feel more like a punishment.

Let your students’ authentic interests be a guide as you think about the best activities for your family this summer.

Top 10 summer activities for teens and tweens

1. Read for pleasure

Reading is the one “homework-like” activity that research shows to be beneficial to support students’ academic growth. However, the key word here is “pleasure.” Try to set aside some dedicated time for reading each day, and then let kids choose what they want to read; graphic novels, magazines, and re-reading Harry Potter or other past favorites are all worthy options. For reluctant readers, you might try taking turns reading aloud and discussing a favorite book together.

2. Make time to play

At Challenge Success, we often remind families of the importance of “Playtime, Downtime, and Family time” (or PDF, as we call it.) Let kids ride bikes, stare at the clouds, or jam on the guitar. This unstructured playtime is essential and different from time spent in more formal music lessons or on an organized sports team.

3. Serve your community

Doing service projects as a family or with peers can introduce kids to new areas of interest, foster a sense of belonging and connection, and support problem solving skills. We know that having a sense of purpose and serving others can boost mental health as well. Ideas include: checking in on elderly neighbors, collecting food and clothing to distribute, cleaning up beaches or parks, or volunteering to support local causes.

4. Go to camp

Challenge Success research shows that summer camp can help kids to be more independent, responsible, and collaborative. If there are safe and affordable options in your community, going to camp can be an incredible growth opportunity where kids can practice important skills while having lots of fun.

5. Get a job or start a project

Whether it’s scooping ice cream or bagging groceries, planting a garden, writing a short story, or researching family genealogy, encourage your child to initiate and participate in some meaningful work this summer where they can learn something new and feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

6. Participate in playdates/hangouts

For kids already feeling anxious about the social aspects of returning to school, ease them in with small, low-stakes social gatherings with neighbors or other kids with a shared interest.

7. Exercise and get outside

The mental and physical health benefits of exercise and time in nature are well-documented. Establish a healthy routine of at least one hour total of exercise each day. Explore local hiking trails and parks, participate in dance parties, yoga, or games of tag – and try to keep this healthy routine going throughout the school year as well.

8. Sleep

As psychologist Lisa Damour once shared, “If there was a magic pill to give to students that would help them feel better physically, emotionally, and do better academically, it would be called sleep.” Use the summer to set up healthy sleep habits such as getting off screens an hour before bedtime, keeping all devices outside of the bedroom at night, and ensuring 8-10 hours for teens and 9-12 hours per night for tweens.

9. Do chores

I joke with parents that if they want to hire a tutor, hire one that specializes in chores. Invest time this summer to teach kids how to do their own laundry, cook a few meals, and clean the toilets.Their future roommates will thank you!

10. Form new screen time habits

After a year of screen time overload, reset your family ground rules this summer. All screen time is not created equal. Consider how much time is spent consuming vs. creating and what activities kids may be missing when they are on screens for so long. Explore more digital media tips.

But, what about the academics?

Teachers know that their students have been struggling this year, and many educators are adjusting the curriculum for the fall and arranging for extra resources for students. If your student is motivated and is asking for extra academic support, or if your school has suggested some additional coursework, you might consider enrolling your child in community classes or summer school.

Aim for courses that meet your child’s interests and ability levels. These courses will allow kids to benefit from some peer socialization and may help them to ease back into the structure and rhythm of school for next year.

After such a difficult school year, most of us and our children are exhausted and are eagerly anticipating some of the traditional joys of summer. Try to carve out time for the activities above and use the summer months to rejuvenate and re-set for a healthier and more engaging school year to come.

More Great Reading:

22 Jobs Teens Can Do to Earn Money During the Summer

How Teens Can Get More Sleep

About Denise Pope

Dr. Denise Pope is a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, where she specializes in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. She is co-founder of Challenge Success, a school reform nonprofit that partners with schools and families to embrace a broad definition of success and implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning

Read more posts by Denise

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