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The Case for an Unstructured Summer

Don’t overschedule your child...or yourself.

pxhere, public domain
Source: pxhere, public domain

Many parents structure much of their kids’ summers: camps, courses, family trips.

Of course, those yield benefit, but because kids’ school years are so structured, I’d like to make the case for a more let-it-happen summer.

Of course, many parents put their kids in structured activities in part because they need childcare. But even such parents have some discretion in choosing the program's level of structure, in instructing a babysitter, and on the weekends.

And of course, some children left to free play will do dangerous things. Such kids need more supervision but that doesn't necessitate parents' structuring most of the kids' time.

The case for free time

Even kids with no store-bought games manage to invent games. Indeed that probably encourages creativity because unlike with store-bought games, kids need the creativity to come up with games from just sticks, plants, hiding places, etc.

Even such seemingly not beneficial games as hide-and-seek yield benefits, for example, strategic planning. The seeker must develop a plan for searching based on the hider's cleverness and risk-tolerance, and a search pattern that avoids redundant searching.

Perhaps the most important benefit of child-designed activities is that they’re customized to the child's level of cognitive difficulty, physical activity, and social involvement. That's less likely in a camp or a parent-selected activity.

And then there’s the benefit of fun, yes, pure unadulterated fun. Kids are more likely than are parents or camp counselors to choose activities that the child will find optimally enjoyable. As a child, my happiest summer moments were not in camp but when I was free to read whatever the hell I wanted—from Mad magazine to, would you believe, anatomy books—but also to walk in the woods, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells, and then lying in the cool grass watching the clouds scud by. Don’t deprive your kids of that.

It’s often said that the next generation’s life may be the first to be less pleasurable than their parents'. Especially because of that, in my view, there’s little reason to force kids into a summer of structure. Even if my kids were academically weak, I wouldn't put them in remediation for the summer. That’s forcing them to spend 12 of 12 months on what they’re weak at and deprives them of childhood’s innocent play and joy. Sure, for the next school year, I’d try to ensure my kids were in a school and teacher’s class likely to help them flower academically and personally but I wouldn’t deny them the pleasures of summer.

And now, a word to you. When you’re on vacation, you could do worse than to leave much of it for unstructured play and relaxation. What might you do: stroll, stare, draw, listen? Browse Psychology Today?

More from Marty Nemko Ph.D.
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