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Spreadsheet summer: how to plan for the holidays

The Times
How do busy parents cope with organising their kids? Mums talk about negotiating summer amid camp, childcare and boredom


It's that time of year again: the season for delicate negotiations, tiptoeing around grandparents, begging, boxing and coxing. A week here, a few days there, summer camp, boot camp, some scheduled constructive boredom and, hey presto, you've pulled it off again - the children are accounted for over the summer holidays.

But if you are still wringing your hands about how to keep your children safe, off the streets and entertained, just be glad that you don't live in Italy where children enjoy 12 weeks of summer holidays, double that of state schools here. In fact, British children have some of the shortest summer breaks in Europe, but that doesn't detract from the headache of forward planning faced by working parents who do not have full-time childcare.

Families largely fall into two camps: those with the time and inclination to let their children take each day as it comes, and those who have most of it mapped out. For many it's not a choice. More and more parents are returning to work; latest research suggests that the number of stay-at-home parents has dropped to 2.2 million, its lowest level in 15 years. And by 2010 the number of mums staying at home is expected to fall another 2 per cent.

While Michelle Price has tried working full-time, part-time and not at all since she became a mum to Digory, 11, and Rex, 9, summer holidays have always been meticulously organised. This year she's ahead of the game, with a colour-coded spreadsheet for the whole holiday. “In terms of planning, I'm at one end of the spectrum. It does take the spontaneity away, but otherwise I don't feel comfortable. Nor can I afford to be.”

Price is a former accountant who now works five days a week as a consultant in London. Her boys' holidays are split between her, their father (the couple are separated) and extended family, and sandwiched between two weeks of summer camp. “They love the activities. They learn new things, make new friends, but I split the weeks so it retains its allure,” she says.

Scrupulous planning isn't only the preserve of working parents. Sharon Wall, a full-time mother of four in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, leaves little to chance. She knows how many days there are this summer and how she will fill them. You won't find her lazing around in her dressing gown at midday. Throughout the holidays, Andrew, 10, Stuart, 8, Jessica, 3, and Sophie, 1, still rise early and stick to a routine.

“If they lounge around too much they get fretful and naughty. With this age spread I can't get away without planning,” she says.

However, she organises along democratic lines; the children write what they fancy doing and, providing it's not too outlandish (feeding crocodiles in Australia didn't pass), she does her best to oblige.

Book early to pack everything in

Booking early in a small town is essential, otherwise children miss out. In previous years her boys have been ice-skating, rock-climbing, sailing, trampolining and camping. She fits in regular library visits, homework - “you need to keep their brains ticking over” - music lessons, and play dates around this. Sophie continues with nursery throughout the summer, though this year she'll do other activities too.

“The children seem happier when they have a structured week. They know what they're doing and keep to a routine with meals and bedtimes. It sounds old-fashioned, but it's not. They stay up late and have fun, they camp and play Xbox, but everything is balanced out, which makes life easier and makes for a happy summer that all the family can enjoy,” Wall says.

Amanda Broomhall, a teacher and the mother of Bernadette, 9, and Thomas, 8, begins organising the summer holidays soon after Christmas. She still remembers the one summer that she didn't plan. “I nearly killed them. They bickered from morning till night. It was horrible. By the end of the holidays I just wanted them to go back to school, and you shouldn't say that about your own children.” Now she's got the holidays down to a fine art: book early, watch out for offers, allow your children to choose most activities, don't spring surprises. The fruits of her labours are a week alone with her husband; this year they are going to Prague.

But mention this tight style of scheduling to some adults of a certain age and their eyes mist over. Whatever happened to the endless summers? Those long days of freedom, punctuated by little more than the odd meal and not a summer camp in sight. Nina Grunfeld, a life coach and mother of four, says that free time is something we're becoming increasingly scared of. “It's important to build in some down time and coax children into drawing on their own resources,” she says. “Boredom kindles the imagination, even if it scares us witless. They need so much less than we think they do. It's all in the mind, if only we allow it to come out.”

Lazy days certainly work for Sarah Nicholson, a Hampshire-based doctor and mother of Wilf, 7, and Bertie, 6 (below). Her boys, in her own admission, run “completely feral” over the summer at their seaside holiday home in West Wales. She's able to take leave for the whole of the break and spends a week at the end of the holiday weaning them back to school hours.

“I feel very anxious about the thought of being planned in the holidays,” she says. “If you plan something and pay in advance, the children might not be in the mood for it on the day. They generally don't want adults interfering or organising their games. Our only structure is getting up at some point and then spending most of the day on the beach with friends. They're not interested in scenery or going anywhere different; they like familiarity. The only real rules are that they have to be polite to adults.”

Holiday care is inevitable for working parents

But for most families, some sort of holiday care is an inevitability, even though seven out of ten working parents say they would prefer to stay at home. Finding adequate care that covers office hours - and which parents can afford - is still a problem, says the Daycare Trust, a charity campaigning for better childcare. “Lack of proper holiday provision comes up time and time again in our surveys,” says Emma Knights, the joint chief executive.

The latest figures show that the average cost of holiday childcare in England is £83.19 a week, although this rises to £97 in the South West and £93 in the South East.

Knights says that the biggest gap is for secondary school children. “They are too old for many of the activities, but their parents don't want them on their own, day in day out.”

Many families don't realise that they can claim help with holiday childcare through the Working Tax Credit, and some providers aren't aware that they can register their activities so parents can claim. “Government initiatives to fund extended childcare don't seem to have focused on holiday provision,” says Knights.

If you're not sorted for the summer by this stage, fear not. Many holiday schemes, both daycare and residential, still take last-minute bookings. It's not too late to hunt down an au pair, find a pliable and trustworthy student, or entrench your child with another family, although as Grunfeld cautions: “There will be payback at some stage.” Some nanny agencies also will supply staff at short notice, even on the day. Take a leaf out of Adi Garrard's book. She has just booked an Australian “manny” (male nanny) through the London-based My Big Buddy agency after trialling him during half-term. She's kept busy by her online jewellery business and needs her children, aged 9, 5, and 6 months, out from under her feet in the family's London basement flat.

“He's great with the baby and my older son loves the idea that this is someone he can hang out with. In fact, he's quite nice, early thirties, cooks, reads to the children and puts up shelves. I'm struggling to see why I don't fire my husband.”

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