My oldest wanders into our home office, his latest piece of art in hand. “This is great, bud! I love the detail on the alligator.” He lingers, rambling on about alligators versus crocodiles and his plan to visit the Everglades someday.

“Hey, love, Mommy’s working right now. You need to find something to do.” Where is my husband? This is my workday. … Isn’t he entertaining this kid? I hear the lawnmower rumble past the house. Oh.

“Why don’t you sit on the floor here and draw?” It seems like a good idea, but how noisy can drawing be?! When I’m trying to concentrate: Very. I ask Zippy to work on his project in the kitchen instead. “But I just want to be near you,” he says, which is super sweet. Unfortunately, things fall apart from there. Such is the life of a work-from-home parent in the summer.

In the three years since our oldest started school, I have struggled with planning summer activities. Summers are full of possibility but devoid of day care and school-organized programs, creating a puzzle I haven’t yet solved. I want to ensure that my boys, who are learning at an exponential rate during the school year, return to school ready to pick right up where they left off. Keeping their minds engaged throughout the summer months will help prevent the notorious “summer slide” and has the added bonus of keeping their behavior on track. But I admit I am not a “lesson plan” kind of mom – not by a long shot! And anyway, I want the summer to be spontaneous and relaxed.

Oh, the dilemma! How do I juggle my family’s need for structure, the desire to keep my kids’ minds engaged, and the freedom and fun that summer is all about?

The Structure

Blocks of kid-free time are critical to our family’s summer survival. Our 5-year-old, Bee, will attend daycare during the summer months, which solves half of the equation. But what (flexible) options do we have for our energetic 8-year-old?

The Library: This tops my list because when my oldest started reading independently his ability to entertain himself exploded. Last year he spent hours curled up on the couch or lying in the yard reading Harry Potter. Most libraries have summer reading programs to motivate kids to continue reading while school is out, and many work with the local schools to develop grade- appropriate lists. Zip hopes a lot of the books are about wizards or the wilderness. He is determined to meet our library’s 1,000-minute reading goal again!

The Playground Program: Playground programs introduce just the right amount of structure without consuming our schedule. We are really lucky; several playground programs are offered throughout our community, run by churches, town parks-and-rec departments, and civic organizations. These half-day programs tend to be low-cost and even free in some cases! Drop the kids off at the park in the morning, pick them up at lunchtime. And because we aren’t spending $200 a week for the boys to be there, we feel okay using the program as needed.

A Playdate Swap: Bee will attend daycare Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it is difficult to find a camp for school-age kids for just two days a week. So, I’m planning to ask Zip’s best friend’s parents for a playdate swap—our kiddo plays at their house Tuesday afternoons and his buddy comes here on Thursdays (which keeps him entertained). It could be a win-win for both sets of parents!

Summer Camp: I won’t go overboard with weeklong summer camps. Not only do these camps tend to be expensive, they also limit our ability to do things as a family. That said, camps are a great way to expose kids to new things or support their passions, and Zip has already asked to attend an outdoor program and basketball camp this year. Those will be two weeks that his little brother enjoys lots of one-on-one with Mommy and Daddy!

The Freedom

The beauty of summer—the part I get excited about—are the endless possibilities for exploring, socializing, and (dare I say?) relaxation. Just as in our structured schedule, free time offers opportunity for summer learning. Our backyard offers a world of possibilities, but when I’m not working, we have the freedom to spend time as a family, taking on new experiences and enjoying our favorites.

My boys especially love exploring nature—our backyard, parks, trails through the woods. I am grateful for this because, as nature expert Richard Louv explains, “A growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature—in positive ways.” And according to studies out of the University of Michigan, outdoor play has been proven to build better brain function and it improves academic performance. For the most part we let their curiosity guide us, but we’ve also found simple ways to turn our exploration into opportunities for learning.

Snap n’ Learn: “What is that?” is a common question when we walk and oftentimes my answer is, “I have no idea!” So the boys snap a picture of the strange bug or funky plant with my phone and, when we get home, we try to figure out what it is. The Internet comes in very handy!

Scavenger Hunts: A great way to keep kids engaged on a hike is to turn it into a game. Can you find five different kinds of trees? Do you know what kind they are? Find an unusual bug. Look for animal tracks. Find a cloud shaped like a cat. Sometimes it’s a cooperative family activity, other times a friendly competition. And on a rainy day, an impromptu scavenger hunt around the house can be great entertainment.

Geocaching: Last summer we gave geocaching a try, hunting for treasures in a nearby park. The boys thought it was a blast, so it is back on our short-list of summer adventures. Geocaches are everywhere, from the deep woods to the center of New York City, and the only tool needed is a smartphone. Check out the Geocaching 101 video, download the app, and you’re ready to go!

Animal Tracking: I never imagined that parenthood would have me inspecting animal poop, but as we all know, parenthood is full of surprises! My boys love looking for animal tracks and scat when we explore. The next question, of course, is, “What animal left this?” Zip received The Nature Tracker’s Handbook for Christmas, so I anticipate inspecting lots of poo this summer. Lucky me!

Nature Art: My boys are forever collecting treasures, resulting in piles of twigs, pinecones, flowers, and leaves stashed in the garage or (in spite of my protests) their bedrooms. To make use of these collections and their imaginations, we turn their found objects into works of art. Using twigs to make a nature mobile is an easy project and—voila!—new home décor!

Regardless of where we land on the structure-freedom continuum this year, I am confident this summer will be filled with mud, frogs (not in the house, please!), books, and bike rides. Their minds and bodies will be active and that will benefit them when they return to school in the fall.