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Summer Activities for Young Teens: 6 Ways to Pass the Time

Ever wondered how to make time stand still? Try having a 12-year-old home all summer with nothing to do. Hearing someone plaintively whine “I’m so BORED” every 15 minutes can make any day seem eternal.

The struggle to be Julie McCoy, Cruise Director, to your middle schooler who is too young for a real job but too old just to splash around the pool is real. What summer activities for 12-year-olds will get you through middle school summer vacation with your sanity intact?

My three kids were all in the 12 to 14 years old age at the same time, so it was a triple challenge. They each got one week at sports camp or art camp, but we were never one of those families who could spend big money to send them away to a six-week sleep-away camp in the Adirondacks.

I almost felt guilty that I was robbing my kids of the enrichment opportunities other kids were receiving. By the time my sons each reached the age of about 12, I noticed there weren’t any boys around anymore, either. The self-doubting side of me said they were all becoming superior athletes at some intensive skills camp, while my kids were getting further behind because of my stinginess. They’ll never be pro athletes because I didn’t send them to enough sports camps!

Time gives perspective, and I now have no regrets about how we spent our summers during the middle school years.

This is the last time that your kids truly crave your company and attention.

A 12-year-old boy will do things like go strawberry picking, re-seal the driveway, and play croquet simply because they want to be with you. One day in the very near future, this will all change. They will want physical, emotional, and psychological distance from you, the most irritating person on earth. And even if that doesn’t happen, once your teen begins high school, they will be so busy you will rarely see them, even in the summer.

My goal was to spend as much time hanging out with my kids as I could, having some fun yet supplying just enough ennui to ensure that they would be eager for the new school year to begin. The trick was finding balance between activity and boredom.

Summer Activities for Teens:

1. Neighborhood jobs

They aren’t old enough yet for a retail job or for scooping ice cream, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find ways to earn money on their own and have some age-appropriate responsibility away from home. My sons mowed lawns, picked up mail, and walked dogs for neighbors while they were on vacation. They caddied at a local country club. My daughter babysat for neighborhood families and volunteered at a nature center as a camp counselor when she was in seventh grade, which was enough responsibility to feel like a real job, but with actual adults in charge.

2. Reading

One rule was inflexible: no television or electronics in the morning. Morning was time for being productive, doing chores, exercising, or running errands. In the afternoon, we had family reading time together on the back porch. Luckily, J.K. Rowling helped me out with a new Harry Potter book every summer, but we used those lazy summer days to spend long hours reading. Sometimes we read a book such as Artemis Fowl or The Amulet of Samarkand out loud, and sometimes we each sat on the wicker furniture with a bowl of popcorn and our own book. These are some of our favorite memories of summer. Research indicates that reading for pleasure outside school has a significant impact on children’s educational attainment and social mobility, and leads to increased cognitive progress over time. Academic progress, plus a lifelong love of reading: It’s a win-win.

3. Outdoors

There is no competition, no one keeps score, and you can’t be “bad” at hiking. We spent weekends canoeing, climbing, and creek walking with our dog. On vacation, we went hiking, camping, and rafting. We had a guide book to local parks, and we worked our way through all the parks with trails, waterfalls, and wildlife areas. It’s inexpensive, too.

4. Board games

My oldest would sarcastically call them “bored games,” but someone was always up for one. We kept a stack of games on the radiator in our dining room, and if someone suggested Yahtzee, there was almost always a willing opponent. I taught them how to play card games such as gin rummy, spit, war, and euchre. Games of Risk could last two or three days. Scattergories, Blokus, Stratego, Battleship, and Apples to Apples were favorites and a low-key way to spend time together and fight boredom.

5. Cooking

Around age 12, I started letting my kids make cookies themselves or help me prep for dinner. They learned how to make grilled cheese and popcorn on the stove. They made horrific messes, which also helped them to learn that cleaning up is part of cooking. Cooking was fun and relaxing, and let’s face it, they simply didn’t have time to learn cooking skills once they were in high school.

6. Boredom

Do you have to entertain them all the time? NO. Being bored is a wonderful stimulus for creativity and learning how to amuse yourself. According to psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, “It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.”

The middle school years are the calm before the storm, the deep breath before the plunge into adolescence. Parenting is still pretty simple right now: Spend lots of time with them this summer vacation. And (sadly or gladly depending on the day) they’ll be back in school before you know it.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.