Making the Most of Summer

By Rachel Wright 2023-05-06 11:51:55

What will you do this summer?

The summer vacation will be with us in a matter of months. Now’s the time to get plans in place, if you haven’t already, for how your family will spend the glorious yet troublesome eight weeks of summer vacation. For busy working parents, this stretch of time can feel like a relay race with the baton passed between adults and caregivers to ensure kids aren’t left unattended.

“Summer’s a good excuse to stay up as late as I can and wake up as late as I can. Even though my parents wake me up at the barbaric hour of” So says a high school senior. When I was a kid, the prevailing parent wisdom was to let kids be bored. Let them find their own entertainment. But leaving kids to their own devices has taken on a whole new meaning in the last decade. Now these devices are the addictive, tech kind we can’t just leave with kids. With virtual reality so much a part of actual reality, many parents worry that without the routine of school, kids will be even more attached to their phones, wasting hours scouring social media rabbit-warrens, or playing PUBG or Call of Duty.

So how do we make sure that summer doesn’t just pass by, that we do something that really sparks joy and that presses the refresh button on work and school? Brush off those vision boards. Now’s the time to make a few of those dreams come true.


Taking a break from Shanghai in the summer was something taken for granted pre-Covid. This summer is a great time to reconnect with travel and new experiences. With airlines laying on more flights, the cost of air travel has become more affordable. And with the scrapping of quarantine, there’s less reason to be worried about travelling.

Doubtless plenty of us will seize the opportunity to return home to see extended family and friends, especially those we have been cut off from in Shanghai for more than three years. Irish empty-nester Kate MacLoughlin hasn’t seen her adult kids and grandson since March 2020. She turned 50 in June but was reluctant to travel back to Dublin in case she caught Covid and was unable to return to work in Shanghai. She was able to go out with a few friends to celebrate her milestone birthday, but it wasn’t the same. “It was a bit underwhelming,” she says. Now, she’s excitedly looking forward to having a big belated party in Dublin this June, with 17 family members and friends and a garden marquee.

If you are travelling back to your home country with children in tow, you could take a leaf out of the French playbook and pack your darlings off to the grandparents for a month and plan your own side-holiday with friends or partner. If you don’t have parents who are willing to do this, like mine who belong to the ‘we have our own lives’ category of seniors, head straight to plan B, CAMP.

Summer Camp

My daughter has never been to a summer camp in the traditional outdoor sense, but she has been particularly clamorous this year when lobbying for camp. Maybe it was all the lockdown she endured that has spurred her desire to get away from home. Her first choice, she announced, was a survival camp with Bear Grylls. Although
a company associated with Bear Grylls does offer a 24-hour survival camps for families, I wasn’t sold on the idea of being cold, damp and uncomfortable. Instead, we enrolled her on a wild outward-bound camp in England offering mountains, mentors and mates. It’s all about challenging yourself in the great outdoors, teamwork, and socializing face-to-face with other British and international teens. My daughter insisted on being with people her own age, not younger, so she will be joining a group of 16 and 17 year olds. It’s reasonably affordable. Like many camps these days, it doesn’t aim to make a profit, just to provide a valuable experience for kids.

I’m relatively late to the game. For plenty of families, a camp of some sort has been an established part of the summer calendar for years. For single American mom Jayne, summer camp has been a family tradition going back generations, starting with her mother. Now in her forties, Jayne went to the same camp in the far north of Minnesota with her sisters, then graduated to being a camp guide during college.

This summer, her daughter Tillie, 14, will be going to the same camp Laketrails, a canoeing and camping organisation based around Lake of the Woods. The setting on the border with Canada is a collection of numerous tiny islands and inlets which is largely uninhabited and inaccessible to cars. Starting out at base camp, campers and guides canoe their way to different portages around the islands over a week, choosing the trail which most closely matches their physical abilities and experience. Hiking, fishing and swimming are part of the experience. They take all required food and equipment with them. Evenings are camp-fires and sharing stories under the stars. Washing is in the clean waters of the lake. An added bonus, guides are often from local environmental colleges and can explain the flora and fauna of deer, otters, the occasional black bear looking for food, as well as environmental protection policies like garbage in, garbage out, and bury your poop. There’s no set schedule. The group can be as relaxed as they like, setting off when everyone’s had breakfast. The idea is to get kids into the woods, enjoying nature, making friends and chilling without electronic devices. It does wonders for shy kids, Jayne tells me, and it’s relatively inexpensive.

But camp is not everyone’s cup of tea. A fair proportion of middle and high schoolers will be thinking ahead and wanting to make the most of their summers brushing up on their studies or prepping for next semester’s courses.

College Preperation

For students who are starting to think about what happens post-school, the summer can be a great time to visit universities and start compiling a most preferred list. Now that in-person visits are possible, there’s nothing like stepping foot on a campus and touring the facilities to see if it might be your perfect match. A friend who took her daughter to one university in the south of England, discovered that the university didn’t play host to many international students, and the campus buildings were run-down. Topped off with a sour student tour-guide who was pointedly disinterested, these black marks were enough to get the place struck off her daughter’s list. These aren’t things you’d ever discover from taking the online tour.

Carly, an enthusiastic freshman at Columbia, has lots of suggestions for how teens can make their summer useful. With college applications coming up for next year’s seniors, she says the summer of junior year is an opportunity to explore potential college majors or broader interests a bit deeper, either by applying to college summer courses in person or online, or doing free online courses via Edx and Coursera. Be warned that college summer sessions are vastly overpriced since you’re buying the college name. College counsellors I’ve spoken to generally advise against them, as it won’t help you get in as an undergrad, although some may offer credits.

If you’re dead set on studying, you don’t have to wait till high school. Oxford summer courses offer study camps to 9 year-olds and up. They’re not cheap. Taking the online course route might be a better option if your child is highly motivated to broaden their learning. For adults, too, they can open a door to a totally new branch of knowledge or vocational study. 

One note of caution, this year I got excited about an free 8-week early Norwegian literature course I came across and enrolled in on a whim. Despite best efforts, I only managed to finish the very first class. These Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, will only work if you’re committed. It very much depends on the amount of effort put in.

Creative Arts

The summer is also the perfect time for creatives to really focus on their artistic passions. So often, art or music gets squeezed for time in the regular school curriculum. Visual arts students in particular find it a challenge to devote the necessary time to their artwork. Korean freshman Uno is applying this year to the California State Summer School for the Arts, which accepts 20 international students to its ultra-competitive month-long arts camp. She’s dreaming of spending the whole day drawing and painting, and not having to worry about maths, English and other courses that eat into her school day.

Creative writers can benefit by workshopping their fiction with other writers at places like the Iowa Young Writers studio, while those with the drive and money for storied media can join the NYC Summer Academy at the School of the New York Times where “the whole city is a classroom”.

But you don’t have to be a dedicated artist, or need much money, to get back into doing a pursuit you used to enjoy. Whether that was playing a musical instrument, swimming, writing, crafting, baking, or even developing a reading habit, the summer can be an opportunity for rediscovery of something that brought you joy before. This goes for adults too. When time flies by and we can’t capture the wonderful experiences of childhood, summer is a chance to sort photos and make family photo books for posterity. Children can also enjoy the pastime of scrapbooking their experiences.


And what if you’re staying in Shanghai? Of course, it goes without saying that summer is also a chance for older kids to make a bit of spending money, with a variety of side-hustles. I’ve heard of a student who spent her summer working a job in retail to fund her shopping habit. Another worked in his uncle’s restaurant to earn a bit of pocket money. He came out richer with life experience by figuring out challenges, which he worked into a neat personal essay. Teaching maths, a foreign language, coding, and building computer keyboards are all lucrative side-hustles teens have shared with me.

Another tried-and-true option leverages the contacts in your neighborhood to organize a summer activity for younger kids to learn basics of rugby, or a chemistry or cooking camp. You can make it paid, but donate the money to a charity if you wish. For many teens in Shanghai, a Saturday job isn’t common. So exposing them to the real world of work, via an office internship or a low-paid job will help them begin to understand what life is like outside the bubble.

Stella Monantera spent four weeks last summer as an unpaid intern working on the accounts at her dad’s shipping company in Shanghai. It was 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and she found it tiring. But it was also useful. Working in the accounting sector, she was given lessons on calculating total revenue, profits and costs, and learned how to use Excel functions. “It’s helped me become more interested in finance and made me lean towards studying finance at uni,” Stella says. Whilst it was nice to feel valued when she was able to complete some of the company’s backlog chores, she admits it was boring at times. Her biggest take-away was insight into being in a work environment.

Be mindful, though, when applying for internships that an untried teen might not be every employer’s dream. The experience often involves training the new recruit which can cost time and money, not to mention patience. But even a relatively low-impact work-shadow experience can provide dividends for kids. My daughter shadowed my husband at work for a day. She was genuinely shocked to see people standing for so long in one place and doing physically repetitive work on the factory floor. Nor was she impressed by the airless cubicle office environment where my husband works. She’s so far discovered that she doesn’t want to work in an office and she doesn’t want to work in a factory.

There’s a lot of conversation in schools right now about how to equip students to cope with an evolving AI-enhanced jobs market. We may not know exactly what the work landscape will look like in five years’ time, but developing an understanding of who we are as individuals, what kind of work we want to be involved in, and how our humanity distinguishes us from AI can provide useful food for thought.

Community Service

During the school year, plenty of schools partner with companies in Shanghai to provide opportunities for service projects as part of the Community, Action, Service (CAS) component of the IB Diploma. Some provide summer service camps too. One that has a marked emphasis on promoting teen involvement in social impact and sustainable development is Keru. Committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development goals, Keru camps show kids how different parts of society like business and academia can work together to provide positive social change. This summer they are offering a raft of business, STEM and humanities programmes. One of the STEM courses is Inclusive Sports Coding and Design for the Blind and Low-Vision Community, which involves developing robotic prototypes. Another humanities course is titled Grottoes Archeology and Cultural Heritage Conservation.”

Speaking to CEO Frances Deram, a long-time China resident, about the grottoes course, she enthuses how much students gained from their experience in Gansu last summer. They learnt tools of archaeology such as site survey mapping skills. During a daytrip in the forests, they saw isolated Buddhist caves off the tourist map. She remarks that it was “kind of mind-blowing. Students feel they’re part of something important, untouched. They realize the need to protect cultural relics.” Guided by an arts scholar who provides historical and archeological information, the students write and publish reports on Wikipedia to share with the archeological community. Another popular camp, a STEM camp, is a conservation expedition to answer the big question, “How can we contribute to the improvement of Yunnan Snub-Nosed monkey preservation?” Students learn about the biodiversity and habitat of the extremely rare snub-nosed monkeys in rural Yunnan. Chinese-speaking students interview the monkey guards. Students also learn about the minority Naxi culture in the region. At the end of the program, students develop and present a plan of improvements to the current Snub-Nosed Monkey habitat preservation measures. Keru also offers support to students interested in promoting awareness campaigns after their trips have ended.


But if you’re feeling like the kids are having all the fun if you stay in China, that’s where you’re wrong. The summer is also a time for adultsto take stock of our lifestyles, how happy we’re feeling in the choices we’ve made, and reboot, if necessary, at a wellness retreat.

Wellness is something that should be a part of everyone’s week, all through the year, yet inevitably taking care of yourself gets put on the back burner when family and work take priority.

One place that’s generated positive feedback is Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy. Located in the tea-planted mountains of Wudang, where a branch of Kungfu originated. It’s not religious or cultish, but aims to help visitors relax, improve their health and understand how to ‘live long and well’ through a combination of taichi, qigong, meditation and Taoist philosophy.

Courses run from one week to three months or more. Accommodation is basic, but comfortable. Kelsey Herringa who did a 9-day trip recently came back glowing and refreshed. It forced her to “slow down,” she said. Part home-stay, part-camp, a typical day starts with a few hours of taichi, then a discussion of Taoist philosophy and its connection with nature. Then maybe there’d be qigong breathing. After, Master Gu who grew up in the area would play some music, or they’d have a tea ceremony, hike, or visit to a temple.

Herringa recalls, “It was very chill” and she counts it as the best Chinese cultural immersive experience she’s had in her six years in China. Meals featuring delicious Chinese food were shared family-style. Rising in the morning, the mountains were shrouded in atmospheric mist. Kelsey was impressed by Master Gu whom she likens to a sprite of the woods. She’d previously done some training in Shanghai with a Shaolin master but had found her lack of Mandarin got in the way. Master Gu, unusual for a Taoist master, speaks fluent English. The whole experience was restorative and relaxing. If you want an immersive Chinese experience, this summer could be the time.