Several friends were waxing rhapsodic recently about magical childhood summers filled with endless hours of freedom to strike up stickball games, read the entire series of Sweet Valley High books and chase fireflies. But when talk turned to our offspring, it was clear that their summers are more continuations of the frantic, jampacked school year: Spanish and music camps, tutoring sessions, sports clinics and so on. And the one mother who had decided to plan no activities whatsoever was complaining that she started hearing whines of “I’m booooored” just days after school ended.
So as summer heads toward its midpoint, what advice do experts provide about the best use of this time off? Finding a point somewhere between the extremes of imposing structure and providing much-needed downtime seems to be the key to a happy, health break for all.
“Summer is the time to slow down a little bit and take it easy — to help over-programmed kids develop their imagination, creativity and their own sense of initiative, instead of just being ferried from one activity to the next,” says Potomac child psychiatrist Michael Brody. He points out that the benefits of unstructured play include learning to work out conflicts and developing motor control and language skills. “I’m not saying that children should be raised by wolves — they have to come in for dinner, someone has to know where they are and there are obviously other safety issues — but there should be less of a leash.”
Of course, the reality is that many mothers and fathers work and need their children to be in day care, camp or other supervised settings all day, so there are fewer children who can engage in unstructured play with one another. And not every neighborhood is safe to explore without adult supervision. “Because of the way things are these days, parents have to plan more for activities than they did 30 years ago, when you could just send your child outside and there would be a group of kids playing in the street ,” says Lisa Efron, a psychologist at Children’s National Medical Center.
Compounding the problem is that many youngsters don’t quite know what to do with an unscheduled afternoon — or week. “Kids today have almost no free time during the school year, and then, all of a sudden during the summer they may have 14 hours a day to fill, which is a big jump,” says Nancy Darling, a professor of psychology at Ohio’s Oberlin College who studies parent-child relationships. She notes potential negative consequences to all that unscheduled time, such as a well-documented rise in underage drinking, marijuana use and smoking during the summer months.
“Learning to figure out what you like and don’t like to do and to develop hobbies to keep yourself entertained, that’s a skill, and an essential one, as you get older.” she explains, “But kids may need help figuring out how to do that — some more than others.” Darling offers some tips to help parents provide just enough — but not too much — assistance and structure in this process:
- Plan one activity a day. Whether it’s going to the pool or simply making ice pops, having a set plan will keep your children busy for a while and expose them to things they might like to pursue further. Try to organize a few special outings over the course of the season, too.
- But also let kids get bored. Whines of boredom are the perfect opportunity to let your children know that they have the power to fix that problem. Give them three or four activity options, to start; or suggest a chore such as cleaning their rooms or weeding the garden, which they may not like but will occupy time and may inspire them to find something better to do.
- Have fun as a family. Summer isn’t just for kids! Decompress together, taking advantage of the fact that you don’t have to hound your child about homework. Look for things that you all enjoy, which can broaden and improve your relationship.
- Get outside as much as possible. The natural world can be a far richer environment than your house, and spending time outdoors calms and de-stresses kids, even if it’s just throwing pebbles in a nearby stream for an hour.
- Monitor screen time. It’s hard to actively play outside in the heat, so it can be nice for kids to veg out in front of the TV or computer for a little while, providing it’s no more than the two hours total per day, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But supervise technology use, focusing on quality educational programs or games and limiting social networking.
- Keep a daily routine. The majority of children do better with some structure, in the form of regular wake-up, meal and bedtimes. Sleeping in until lunchtime and staying up until all hours aren’t a good idea, since everyone rests better with a set schedule.
What about that oft-cited summer “brain drain,” where kids purportedly forget much of what they’ve learned during the school year? It’s a reality, in some situations: Studies have shown that students lose ground during the summer, especially in math.
“For a lot of kids, it is very helpful to continue practicing academics during the summer, particularly in subjects they find difficult,” says Efron. But child psychiatrist Brody stresses that a summer filled with creative play and exploration also challenges the mind. “Just because kids aren’t in school doesn’t mean they’re not learning,” he says.
Even so, Brody strongly advises that come mid-August, with school around the corner, it’s important to begin shifting back toward a stricter routine, moving bedtime to an earlier hour and re-integrating some academic work into your child’s day.
“Kids really need help with transitions like going back to school,” he says, so “get in that trip to the beach and cram in as much fun and play as possible, right now.”