Nam Y Huh  /  AP file
Volunteering is the latest in alternative summer and spring break activities. Chicago student Renia Davis serves food to Frank Nowakowski in March at a Chicago cafe that helps the needy. Davis spent spring break learning about homelessness with the Civic Leadership Institute, a nonprofit group that organizes spring and summer programs for high schoolers.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/2/2005 9:40:09 AM ET 2005-05-02T13:40:09

Some parts of the country are just beginning to thaw and yet, parents be warned, those long, hot summer days are just around the corner.

If you don’t have a summer break game plan for your kids, warns Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, don’t be surprised if you see them sitting like zombies in front of "I Love Lucy" re-runs or drawn like magnets to their video games.

“Video games are almost addictive and they’re too easy to use as sort of a baby-sitter,” says Bryant, who is the father of four boys who range in age from 10 to 17. “that’s why it’s important to really help your children look for alternatives — activities that are good for them mentally and physically.”

With this is in mind, we’ve compiled our top five ideas for a stimulating summer vacation. 

Play games
Check out the YMCA, Boy & Girls Clubs, local park and recreation departments, teen activity centers or even neighborhood community associations. You can find all sorts of sports leagues, swim teams and outdoor activities. Bowling alleys also offer leagues for various ages.

In addition to signing up for classes and leagues, Bryant encourages parents to teach their children the games they used to play as kids. Ideas: hop scotch, duck duck goose, capture the flag, kick the can, red light/green light, kick ball, water balloon fights, touch football, etc. “It used to be that kids in neighborhoods would congregate and lead their own activities but that doesn’t happen as much these days,” he says. He believes it’s probably due to parental safety concerns and time constraints.

Still, playing is the best form of fun and exercise. “Kids are mentally, physically and emotionally healthier when they’re active," he says. "Our bodies are meant to be in action.” 

Get smart(er)
Many universities and colleges offer extensive summer programs, some for children as young as pre-K and many designed for motivated high schoolers who want to board in the dorms and earn college credits.

For the very youngest children it’s mostly a time for playing in a fun, stimulating environment. For middle schoolers it’s a chance to explore and socialize. But for the older kids it’s serious course work and a great prep for the responsibilities that lie ahead, says Stephanie Teterycz, director of summer sessions at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development in Evanston, Ill. “High school is very regimented and college, of course, isn’t like that. Many of these summer programs give students a sense of what college will be like when they get there.”

Programs differ in price and duration (usually four to eight weeks) but they aren’t cheap (at least several thousand dollars). Financial aid is available most places but isn’t plentiful. Some programs are geared toward helping younger students apply to college and write at the university level. Others offer high school juniors and seniors a chance to get a year’s worth of college science or language requirements done in one summer. Fun and interesting activities are usually scheduled around classes and weekends.

For a more budget-conscious alternative, many universities also offer reduced or free tuition for a summer class (without board) to students enrolled in the local school system. Call the summer programs office of nearby universities or check out summerfun.com or studentsreview.com for links to many programs across the country.

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Give back
It’s the latest in alternative summer and spring break activities: volunteering. High school and college kids can sign up to volunteer for a variety of community outreach programs through an organization such as Break Away. Northwestern University also offers the Civic Leadership Institute, a service-learning program for high school students. In either of these programs kids may find themselves delivering meals to the homeless, building houses or helping sort donations for the needy in a variety of communities across the country.

But, of course, kids don’t need to go away to give back. They can also check out local opportunities to volunteer. For example, Bryant’s sons help with the church’s kids camp and teach basketball to younger children at a rec center. Hospitals, nursing homes and animal shelters are also great places to volunteer.

Get out and about
We know, family vacations in the station wagon sound like more fun, but wouldn’t your junior high or high school child also like to travel the world — or even just the East Coast — with a bunch of new friends? That’s what teen tours such as Musiker active teen tours are all about. You pay the money (not cheap!) and they have a load of chaperoned travel fun for several weeks.

Of course, getting out and about can also mean taking day trips to local museums, attractions and, if you’re lucky enough to have one, your local aquarium. If your child is particularly interested in, say, the aquarium or the art museum, inquire about summer classes and workshops. Many museums offer art classes and some aquariums have teen nights and other events.

Trade with another family
This is low-cost but can also be just as fun and educational as any swank tour. Team up with a good friend or family member who also has a child. One week (or more) you take the children and then a different week the children go to the other home. The idea is to have each child experience life in a different family and environment. Also, you get a summer break without paying a baby-sitter.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the new book "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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