find a happy balance
School holidays seem to come up much faster than school pick-up zones.
It feels like everyone's just got back into a routine when another school term miraculously disappears, triggering elation among kids and teachers but, for some parents, a wave of low-level panic.
Even primary school maths helps explain that two working parents tag-teaming their eight weeks of annual leave between them doesn't cover the 11-14 weeks of school holidays that most Australian kids get in a year. Single parents don't even come close.
Sky News presenter and author of book MotherZen Jacinta Tynan has called for an entire review of the school holiday calendar, saying it's simply not designed for modern parents.
It's fair to say current school scheduling is largely based on tradition, dating back to 19th century Britain when children finished school at 3pm to help in the fields before sunset. The long summer break was designed to provide extra hands during harvest.
Tynan argues many modern parents, usually women, scramble to juggle childcare and holiday entertainment - usually a bit of both - with their own work schedules.
"A friend's husband told her he didn't want to 'waste' his annual leave to look after their kids,” she writes. "Yet she does just that. So we offload, hire babysitters, pay for camps, swap with other mothers. Or quit.”
She says school and work were fundamentally incompatible because of school timetables that don't reflect the reality of modern lives, short changing both kids and parents.
But early childhood education professor Marilyn Campbell warns against keeping kids at school for longer simply to meet the needs of mainly urban working parents.
"To do that is to see school as babysitting,” Ms Campbell says. "And it's not that. It should never been seen as that, as convenient as it may be.”
Mas Campbell, an executive member of Australian Psychologists and Counsellors in School, says calls to change school scheduling are another example of schools being asked to take on more responsibility for the social and emotional care of children.
"Yes, of course it can be difficult for working parents in school holidays but it's a great time for kids to just relax and be kids,” she says.
"Many children are over-scheduled. The holidays are designed to give them downtime and, ultimately, to help them learn better throughout the year. If they're bored -terrific. Let them be. They'll work something out.”
Of course there are other parents who love school holidays because it frees them from the tyrannical routine of getting kids to and from school, laundering (or finding) uniform items, lunches, after-school activities and making sure homework is done.
The corps of mummy bloggers who sing the praises of school holidays are usually stay-at-home saints, freelance workers or those blessed with a degree of workplace flexibility.
One of Australia's leading researchers into women in the workplace Professor Marian Baird of the University of Sydney says flexibility is the solution to the ongoing challenge of school holidays when both parents work.
"I don't think it's realistic to expect school terms or teacher workloads to change dramatically so we should be looking at workplaces to better accommodate parents,” she says.
"Fathers need to feel they can take more flexible work options to share the load with mothers. That might entail a change in culture in some workplaces but that's something we should be working towards.”
Ms Baird says another option is to extend annual leave for parents, allowing them to take more leave at lesser rates of pay or unpaid leave which can help cover school holidays.
But the wheels turn slowly.
To fill the gaps, many organisations offer paid or free school holiday programs. Schools themselves, local councils, community groups and commercial enterprises offer a plethora of school holiday activities and services.
As any working parent will tell you, the key lies in being organised. So juggle away. Remember, kids are almost always happy if you are.
FIND THE FAMILY FUN
Author and blogger at StayStrongMummy Kimberley Welman is mother to three young children - Eve, 6, and twins George and Indiana, 5.
"With the twins in Prep and my oldest in Grade 1, it's safe to say we are all well and truly ready for the school holidays,” she said.
"We love getting outdoors and making the most of the incredible weather at this time of year. The kids love to be active and they have plenty of energy to burn, so I like to have a few activities planned while also being mindful that the break is also a time for rest and rejuvenation.”
EMBRACE THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Pack a picnic lunch, let the kids take their own backpacks and go somewhere you've never been before. Visit a different beach or creek, a bush walk or picnic spot. Mummy tip: I like to limit stress, so I find spots with toilets close by because, of course, the moment you unpack everything, someone will "have to go”. A coffee pit stop should be in walking (or swimming) distance.
WE LIKE TO MOVE IT!
You don't need to be a fitness professional to run a fun family workout in the backyard, at the park or in your lounge room. Fifteen minutes of physical exercise boosts our mood, endorphins, clarity of mind, energy levels and physical health.
Choose five different exercises that the kids can do (for example squats, skipping, frog jumps, bear crawls and lunges) and let everyone join in on the circuit. Download a timer app, turn the music on and aim for 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest times four rounds (with one minute break in-between rounds).
Even if the kids do one to two rounds for the fun of it and go off and play, you can finish off the workout and feel ready to tackle the rest of the day.