'Mommy, what can I do now?'
Children welcome summertime. It heralds a release from the classroom, and long sunny days of freedom and fun. At least, that's how summer starts. But within a few weeks, especially if kids are left to plan their own amusements, boredom may set in. ''There's nothing to do-o-o'' becomes the plaintive chant, particularly with the 5- to 10-year-old age group, and mothers begin to glance wistfully at the calendar, counting the days until fall.
Although many families plan vacations, day camp, or park district classes to keep their youngsters busy, it's obvious that these activities will not fill a child's entire summer. What other ideas can parents use, especially when boredom strikes?
1. An aimless child can quickly turn restless and cranky. That's why it's important to keep some structure and routine in his day. Children should be expected to perform certain household tasks, preferably during morning hours when energy is high. If a parent posts a chore chart and supervises daily jobs before playtime, this will free everyone for later activities and involve children in a reassuring routine.
Children should also maintain a daily ''quiet time,'' perhaps right after lunch, when doors are closed, shades pulled, and distraction and noise minimized. Children may initially balk at this restriction, but most eventually enjoy the respite.
2. Establishing a weekly schedule of events is helpful, too; children then know what to expect and may avoid nagging. When my sons were small, we kept a summer calendar in the kitchen and chose particular weekdays for routine events.
Every Tuesday, for example, was Library Day; the boys spent a few happy hours working puzzles, watching filmstrips, and choosing books to read during ''quiet hour'' at home. Thursday was Excursion Day - we'd plan an afternoon trip to beach or zoo, or just a long ride on the subway. On Friday evenings we always had a cookout, complete with marshmallow roast. By the time we filled in the remaining days with shopping, errands, and appointments, the kids had a pretty full schedule. Best of all, they stopped asking for trips and treats at other moments.
3. One of my friends discovered an ongoing summer pastime that her children thoroughly enjoy -- vegetable gardening. Rather than overwhelming them with a vast expanse of dirt to tend, she sets up a mini-garden in a cut-down barrel for each child. One barrel holds radishes (the gardener's choice), another beans, and the third sports several varieties. The kids plant seeds, water, and weed, and eventually share their produce at the family dinner table. Apartment dwellers can use the same idea with window boxes or porch gardens.
4. When playtime gets stale, parents can often recycle old ideas into new settings. A sheet thrown over a backyard picnic table becomes a tent in which young children will happily play with the same toys they earlier discarded. That sheet spread on the den floor turns lunch into an indoor picnic. Colored tape attached to the driveway provides a maze or trail for wagons, bikes, and skates. (Decorating those riding toys produces a parade.) Rolls of white paper attached to driveway or garage walls turn plain drawing activities into an art fair (even more fun in bare feet!).
Finally, stay-at-home mothers handling the demands of vacationing offspring need a break, too; they should make certain to trade their children with other families or hire a baby sitter at regular intervals to ensure some free time for themselves. Then they'll return to family duties refreshed, renewed, and ready for that inevitable question, ''Mommy, what can I do now?''