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Bev BetkowskiHow do we keep COVID-19 from ruining our precious vacation time, with international borders closed to travellers, festivals cancelled, parks, camping and cottage visits limited, and even small events like garage sales forbidden?

There are ways to salvage summer plans – but it means thinking differently about our leisure time, say University of Alberta experts.

It’s normal to feel disappointed about cancelled summer plans, said Elizabeth Halpenny, a University of Alberta expert in recreation, leisure and tourism studies.

“Many of us think about our next vacation. It’s like hopping on these islands of opportunity to get away from everything and if we break that chain it creates a sense of frustration, and now there’s limbo about when we can do ‘meaningful’ travel again.

“It really keeps people in the doldrums right now.”

But rethinking vacation time is not a bad thing, Halpenny said, because it lets us explore ideas for more meaningful travel experiences.

“When we choose our vacations, we sometimes think about our ability to boast about the most exotic destination or having the biggest boat on the lake, but we can also take pleasure from our vacations in other ways. What helped me achieve greater self-actualization or what did I learn?”

That can happen in our backyard, without having to go far from home, she added.

“It could be about the richness right in our own province and how the place we live and the cultures that are here are special.”

Take pleasure from tourism not just during a vacation, but also in planning it beforehand and savouring it afterwards, Halpenny said.

“There’s a lot of pleasure in simply anticipating a trip. If you can draw some joy from that, it’s important to linger over it. And trip planning itself can be a fulfilling experience; lose yourself in doing research for it.”

As we wait out the pandemic lockdown, now is a good time to reflect on past vacations – another way to find some trip-related enjoyment, she added.

“Scrapbook or chronicle that special vacation in some way. We can go back to these experiences and relive them in a celebratory way. Think about what was most fulfilling and share those memories with others.”

And even as government guidelines limit activities, learn to savour simple experiences during outings that are allowed, such as a visit to a local park.

“Take more time to be mindful of the place you’re in,” Halpenny said.

Sharing your outing on social media, practising photography or enjoying the scenery during a kayak ride or walk can make close-to-home leisure time more meaningful.

Virtual tourism offers unique getaway options for those wanting to go further from home, she noted. Websites like offer live webcam experiences around the world in real time, from watching wildlife to touring famous museums.

“You can lose yourself travelling through these sites.”

Whatever vacation experiences people choose, don’t let working-from-home habits bleed into that downtime, Halpenny advised.

“There are blurred lines right now between what is vacation and what is everyday life, so we need to protect that time.”

What about the kids?

As home school ends and summer vacation begins, kids may also grapple with disappointment from lowered expectations, said U of A educational psychologist Lia Daniels.

It’s important that parents help their children identify any such feelings.

“It helps them understand those emotions and allows those feelings to be recognized,” she said, adding that young kids tend to be durable when dealing with disappointment.

“They’re willing to let go of their sadness much faster than adults are, especially with a bit of help. They may not be able to go to the spray park, but you could fill a bucket in the backyard and give them a squirt gun and that might be enough to engage them in something they can still enjoy. And then name that emotion for them – it says, we are having a lot of fun right now and we can make good feelings in all sorts of circumstances.”

Letting kids know what to expect is also helpful in managing expectations.

“Otherwise you get a lot of ‘I’m bored, there’s nothing to do.’ One way to get ahead of that is to have a list of things to do together, like going for ice cream or putting the sprinkler up, or letting them know afternoon is free playtime. That doesn’t mean parents are always filling their kids’ time, but letting them know what’s coming is a good way to make everyone’s life easier.”

For older kids who had been looking forward to summer camps, team sports or visits to the pool or cottage, valuing their need for independence is key, said Daniels.

“In the adolescent years, they’re biologically programmed to want less parent and more friends, so ask them what they need. Have a conversation about how to create what they are missing – is it allowing more screen time with a friend to have a good chat? Or a driveway visit by themselves?”

Older teens who like to drive or bike and want to get out of the house could channel that desire in useful ways, she added.

“They could be the family member who goes to the grocery store and waits in line or does it for others in the neighbourhood.”

It’s also a good time for teens to indulge in their talents or interests, like cooking or gardening.

“It finds a new home for their energy that would have gone into other things.”

Staying active is an important part of a kid’s summer and the pandemic shouldn’t get in the way of that, said U of A sport psychologist Nick Holt.

“We do know you can spend time outside and we should make the most of things that are available to us rather than just hoping other things will open up.”

For youths missing out on team sports this season, online options like virtual workouts and instruction can help fill the gap, he suggested.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good way for them to engage their skills and it provides some social connection.”

Unstructured play time that lets kids explore natural areas like the river valley, walking paths and other green spaces – all while physically distancing – is equally important in having a good summer, and helps give them 60 minutes of daily recommended exercise, he added.

“It’s good to let kids play on their own. They have a sense of freedom, the opportunity to explore – these are important parts of childhood.”

And as lockdown restrictions ease, parents should be ready for a difficult conversation if summer camps or other activities start to open up but they don’t feel comfortable sending their children, Daniels advised.

“Parents may make decisions they feel are in the best interests of their kids. This is an important time for families to draw together in communication. It’s a good time to remember to be kind and patient to one another.”

Bev Betkowski is a reporter with the Folio, the University of Alberta’s online publication.

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