With his usually packed summer schedule this year free of baseball, sleep-away camp and trips to his grandparents’ home, 9-year-old Rowan Hutchison started fishing in neighborhood ponds with a couple of friends in Baton Rouge, using sticks they’d sharpened into spears. When the fish swam away, they realized they needed a boat to get to the fish. Rowan grabbed an old wagon and rounded up some tools and materials. He assigned one friend to the role of float tester, put another to work helping him patch holes and got busy doing what kids are good at: playing, creating, messing up and trying again. It took weeks to get it right. Once the trio had a vessel that could float, Rowan learned to sew from Mom so he could make a flag out of underpants. They christened the boat “The Quarantine.”

“He’s very much determined how every one of his days has gone this summer,” says his mother, Jenni Hutchison. “He wants to build things. He wants to create things. He wants to solve problems. He wants to figure things out on his own.”

Turns out, having nothing to do all summer has been quite something. To be sure, it’s been a logistical, emotional, financial and physical challenge for families. It has put into stark relief inequalities in child care and racial injustices. It is, no doubt, a stressful time to be a parent. But, as some have realized, it can still be an awesome time to be a kid.

“The reason you’re seeing kids being so creative now is that they’ve been allowed to be kids — not just apps being programmed to go to college,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a nonprofit group that has long pushed for more unstructured and unsupervised time in kids lives.

“Kids are like seeds, and free time is the water they need to grow,” she says. “With all this free time, we’re seeing a lot of growing.”

This summer, Let Grow sponsored an independence challenge, asking kids to send in videos and stories of their accomplishments. The highlight reel features kids doing what Skenazy called “normal kid stuff”: setting their own alarms, making breakfast, drawing, sewing, growing gardens in milk jugs and going solo on inline skates.

“It’s important to remind parents that the current health, economic and political crises — however disruptive and unsettling they are — have also given our children opportunities to grow and develop in ways that would have been impossible in more ‘normal’ times,” says Steven Mintz, author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood.” “In many households, children are taking on a host of new familial responsibilities. They have also had to learn important lessons: about how to entertain themselves and how to manage their own learning.”

So, parents (and future historians of childhood), consider these your reminders that good things did indeed happen in summer 2020.

Will DuBois was supposed to be playing baseball on a travel team this summer. Instead, the 13-year-old traveled with his mom, Lisa DuBois, from their home in Falls Church, Va., to Florida to help his grandfather, Richard DuBois, make the transition from rehab facility to home after heart surgery. “It had been touch-and-go with Dad at times, and I knew I had to get down there and get him set up at home safely,” said Lisa DuBois, a real estate broker, who was trading emails with clients in Virginia while trying to source physical therapists in Florida. “It was stressful, and I was happy for the help and company."

She got a whole lot more than company. While Mom set up home health-care services and got prescriptions in order, Will cooked his grandfather’s meals, helped him shave and basically did whatever Gipa (as Will calls him) needed, earning him the nickname of “Gipa’s butler.”

“When it was time to leave, Dad jokingly asked if Will could stay another week; I laughed it off, but Will was serious and asked to stay,” Lisa DuBois said. “At 13, I would have been too scared to take on that much, but Will had shown me that he was ready for this.”

With his mom back in Virginia, Will spent the next week whipping up Hamburger Helper meals, helping his grandfather with physical therapy and proving to his mom that he was ready to take on more responsibilities. “I couldn’t believe the transformation; it was like a curtain lifted and he’d gone from a boy to a man,” she said. “He really stepped up in a way that I can’t imagine he’d been able to any other summer.” In the future, DuBois says, she’s determined to keep Will’s schedule less packed — to encourage more independence.

Hard. That’s how Shaby Olibrice described the first few weeks of summer, when she worried about finding ways to keep her daughter, Kylie Thurman, 8, off her phone all day. Olibrice, 28, works nights as a corrections officer, which means Kylie entertains herself for a few hours in the morning after spending the night at Olibrice’s sister’s house. There, she squeezes in precious time with her cousins, but beyond that, Kylie, an only child, has been without her main source of summer fun: seeing her friends at the community pool in Miami Lakes, Fla. The pool didn’t open until mid-August.

Olibrice says the two started scheduling their own play dates in the afternoons. Mom ordered board games and coloring books, they found activities online, and Kylie proved to be quite capable of making her own fun. Or in her own words: “I got creative,” she says, proudly touting her art projects, self-made lunches and the 10-box fort she built as a quiet nook in which to read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

She got curious, too. Spotting the check-engine light on the family Toyota Camry, Kylie asked to investigate and got a lesson in auto maintenance 101 from Mom, who learned beside her father under many a car hood. Kylie can now check and change the oil. “We’re doing good,” Olibrice says. “She’s a curious kid, who’s learned there’s some things she’s got to do on her own.”

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Day 25 of Dance for Justice, and we’ve raised over $17.5k for #BLM. Thank you, everyone. . And, we still dance! This week is kinda exciting. We’ll be dancing live, chatting with some very cool people, and maybe crafting some homemade and inspiring merch (shout-out to mother daughter duo @have_a_gr8_day). . Our goal is to still raise as much awareness and funds to celebrate and uplift Black, Brown and Indigenous lives. And we are always exploring other ways to celebrate kids who are using what they love to spread more love. . One more immediate decision we’d like to make - we want to start raising and donating funds to a youth focused and/or youth lead arts, play and music organization. We have a few in mind though if anyone knows of an org. or group who provides opportunities for kids to do what they love while inspiring social change and could use some support, please let us know. #GoodtobeGood #JusticeKids . Meanwhile, I’m going to keep leaping like Billy Elliot. DFJ-style. Let’s do this! . . . . . . . . . #danceforjustice #leobhubesi #billyelliot #lovewhatyoudo #socialchange #showup #danceforpeace #dance #boysdance #bombas #captainamerica #goldenstatewarriors #stephcurry #mondaymotivation #justice #peace #blacklivesmatter

A post shared by Leo Perry (@leo_a_perry) on

While walking home from a Black Lives Matter march in his hometown of Pasadena, Calif., Leo Perry, 7, asked his mom what more he could do to keep fighting injustice. Claire Perry, who is White, and Leo, who is biracial, have had to confront racism head-on and have discussed matters of race before. A few days after the march, in mid-June, Claire was on a work call when she looked outside and spotted Leo dancing. He’d taken chalk, two hats for donations and his dance moves out to the sidewalk in front of their home. His goal: to raise money for Black Lives Matter. “I just looked out the window, and there was Leo, dancing with such joy and self-confidence,” Perry said. They named the effort Dance for Justice, and Claire posted a video on social media. It went viral and they set up a GoFundMe account for the Black Lives Matter Global Net Foundation. By early August, Leo had been dancing for 54 days (some days for a couple of hours; others, just 20 minutes), and they’d raised $18,500.

They’d also created another nonprofit group to support arts and sports programming for kids in underserved areas. Leo is clear about his mission, to encourage kids to “do what they love to do to spread more love.” And his mom is grateful he has been able to be a part of this critical conversation about racial justice, without being robbed of the joy kids deserve. “This has all been so crazy — trying to manage work and parenting, but this gives me hope,” Perry said. “He took the conversation about race and made it his own, through something he loves and by getting other kids involved. As a parent, that’s inspiring.”

Kenny Robinson, 10, has been on the move this summer. When he’s not vacuuming and cleaning alongside his parents at the physical therapy practice they own in Arlington, Va., he’s on the basketball court, running drills with his dad, Kenneth Sr. “If it were up to him, he’d be on the basketball court all day long,” says his mom, Tammy Robinson, 44. “He’s definitely benefiting from this summer without one camp right after the other.”

The family adopted a “covid puppy” in May, and Kenny has led the charge in training 5-month-old Willow. Willow’s adoption offered a lesson in financial literacy, too, as Dad asked Kenny to do a cost analysis of owning a dog. “He’s getting to be around adult conversations and take on responsibilities,” Tammy Robinson says, “but at the same time be a kid on the basketball court and at home where his time is less structured than before.”

For Christina Busso and Marshall Lammers, the summer of canceled plans has turned into one of watching their two kids figure out their own interests, without constant adult input. Together, Alex, 12 and Caroline, 8, found online classes on OutSchool and YouTube and learned how to start their own business, making toys and small gifts on a ToyBox 3-D printer Alex got for Christmas. They’ve worked on a business plan and marketing strategy and are fielding questions from their investors (Mom and Dad). Caroline took a class in stop-animation moviemaking, fashioning sets out of Legos all over their home in Alexandria, Va. Alex is helping Caroline learn to play his old violin. And together they staged an accordion concert for the neighborhood from their driveway. Another night, they turned the yard into a G-rated mini-Coachella with 50 glow sticks and two cabin-fever kids one hot July night. Busso’s Facebook post from that night reads:

Captain's log, day 128. Quarantine Math:

2 kids + 50 glow sticks =

Best. Idea. Ever.

“I hope they remember this as the summer where they took responsibility for their own learning, where they chose their own path and sought out ways of learning new things,” says Busso, 42, who’s also grateful for the extra-dose of quarantine-fortified bonding before Alex heads off (or logs on) to middle school.

Busso is proud of her family for coming together, pitching in and not blowing up at every adjustment or canceled vacation. “Here’s the thing, we’re just spending so much more time together, so there’s more of everything. More talking. More learning what memes your son finds hilarious. More eating dinner together, “ she said. “It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s not orchestrated, like before. It’s just our family, together, getting through this.”

Amanda Long is a writer in Falls Church.

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