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Bringing Back the Unscheduled Summer Builds Empathy in Kids

Study: Turns out unstructured time makes kids smarter, happier and kinder

So, what's your kid doing for summer?

Tis the season for that question. And, apparently only good parents coordinate a stimulating, healthy, active, academically rigorous without tasting like school, musical, exercisey, artsy-craftsy, self-esteemy, math-intensive, science-focused, mindful, experiential, multi-media, child-centered, Best-Summer-Ever SUMMER!

Summertime, summertime…

All the kids are doing it. They're leaving this week for the camps with the brochures of the happy, jazz-handed kids doing 'Guys and Dolls' at summer theater camp or recycled sculptures at arts camp or violin or soccer or girls football or mad scientist camp or interpretive dance camp; day camp, sleepover camp, speak French while snorkeling camp. So many smiling, happy, healthy, campers on the brochures my teeth hurt from the sweet campiness of it all. If you have kids in high school, they better be getting terrific, resume-building internships and jobs this summer to help prepare them — and get them into — college. If they're in college, they better be getting terrific, resume-building internships and jobs to prepare them for the challenging job market they'll face after graduation. Nobody's summer is safe!

What happens if there's no cruise director for a kid's summer?

Good parents must get on this or all the good spots will be taken and your kid will… will what? Will do what? What is just over the abyss of not getting on it? What hell lies on the other side of a lazy, relaxing, uncivilized summer?

Friends, I have been there. It's called Oregon and my family and I resided in this land a few summers ago, where my daughter – due to circumstances well beyond her control – was forced to experience an unscheduled summer. I was paralyzed by grief after the death of my amazing younger brother. Grief takes a lot with it. Last summer, it took me into exile.

One of the many unintended consequences of our summer's grief-related, self-imposed time-out from human interaction was the end of my daughter's scheduled social life. When one is avoiding the human race, it's simply too hard to make or respond to requests for play dates, or to have the dedication to drop-offs and pick-ups and waiting outside the ballet studio with other moms who insist on making polite conversation that, sadly, burns like acid.

So I didn't.

Without a childhood cruise director, your kid has to fend for herself. No more highly structured after school program; no more sloshing to swim lessons, careening from karate to make the pottery-throwing play date. When Mom's too broken to schedule and schlepp for a few months, kids revert back to an actual childhood. Oddly enough, it's the childhood many of us remember: School's out. Mom throws open the screen door to the backyard and says 'Be back for DINNER!'

None of the pre-screening, the speed-dating with parents before letting your kids play in highly-structured, diligently- supervised, age-appropriate, gluten-free play dates.

I was preparing to move across the country and trying to get through each day. Once grief robbed me of all standards of vigilance, fear and structure, I discovered we lived in an actual neighborhood with actual neighborhood kids. Once I started flinging open the door and letting my daughter out into the (small) world of our backyard, common areas behind the house, cul-de-sac a block away, the Universe opened up. It's like right before you move away from a place you've hated and all the cool women you could have been friends with but never met start leaping out of the woodwork. Or when your marriage just ended and you really, really don't want to meet anybody and then somehow the most excellent specimens present themselves at your metaphorical doorstep while you're packing your car to leave the state.

Little Rascals and Babes on Bikes

Back to my daughter. With all this newfound freedom and unstructured time, our home became Grand Central Station for two distinct neighborhood gangs that emerged. First were The Little Rascals. Led by Liam, a first-grader of few words and a shock of a fiery red-haired Mohawk. His wing man is Leo, next-door neighbor and fellow 1st grader who could sell green to grass. This kid single-handedly sold $37 worth of lemonade and cookies at the gang's most recent operation by standing on the sidewalk, arms full of cookies. When a car even slowed down he'd wave the cookies madly, take theatrically sumptuous bites and moan until the mark put the car in park and said 'Sold!' Leo was so enthusiastic he even ran home to see if his grandparents would buy his product.

Next was Jasper, who I never actually met, but he was what neighborhood legends are made of, so I was told. When I ask my daughter about him, she'd whisper: "Middle School," and shrug like, 'enough said.' He had a plastic bb gun.

Rounding out the mix was Zooey, who would no doubt be cast as The Little Rascal's daring Darla. She wore only flowing pink or purple Disney nightgowns or pajamas, which she insisted were not pajamas but simply "comfortable clothes." She was maybe all of 4, and despite the bowl-cut pixie look, came by alone to pick my daughter up for another caper.

Sometimes they came to the door, but mostly they'd stand behind the fence enclosing our backyard, stick their noses through a hole in the wood and sing "Leeeee-yah" in a high-pitched, irresistible chorus. My daughter tears out the back door, followed by shrieks and shrills of delight.

And then there was the Babes on Pink Bikes Gang. Three darling girls: sisters Franny and Vivi, who have chickens in their garage; and then Molly, who is allergic to carrots. Their Siren's Song equally impossible to ignore. They lived across the cul-de-sac and traipsed over interchangeably for various and sundry afternoons of bike riding, dress up, rock painting, sprinkler running, tree climbing, whatever whatevering. They bickered endlessly and it was simply delicious.

The two worlds – Little Rascals and Babes on Bikes – collided in one magical entrepreneurial effort my daughter came up with as a money-making scheme one sunny afternoon. My kid was always the brains behind the operation.

When left to their own devices…..

The idea, a classic: Lemonade and cookie stand on the corner. The hook? Franny and Vivi's mom's chocolate chip cookies (semi-sweet, no nuts) literally won 'Best in Show' at the 2008 county fair. Because this woman runs marathons, swam an international swimming thing in Australia, is everybody's favorite 5th grade teacher and does not have an ounce of body fat....she was able to whip up her award-winning cookies while tending her organic vegetable garden and hand painting signs for the lemonade stand.

I mixed canned lemonade and presided over quality control of the whole operation.

All the kids sold their little hearts out, Vivi in a pink tutu, Liam directing traffic, Leo hawking their wears, Zooey holding up the sign and bellowing an improvised tune about cookies and lemonade and give us money. My daughter, who was a couple of years and two feet taller than the whole lot of them, managed the whole affair, meted out discipline for over-enthusiasm or safety violations, and controlled the finances. They all left with equal parts cash, competence and promises of bigger and better marketing strategies for the next weekend.

More unscheduled playtime, more empathy – research says!

It's always affirming to have research back up your instincts, or make you feel even more right than you ever thought you could be. Psychology Today bloggers Maia Szalantz and Bruce D. Perry reported in their blog, Born For Love, that what I feared was my absentee parenting was actually a brilliant strategy for developing a psychologically sophisticated and loving child! Yeah me!!

Unstructured play, they argue, develops empathy in children that lasts a lifetime.

The more kids get to know each other by simply hanging out, the more empathy they develop. They say this translates into empathy later in life — or, the lack thereof. Here is a fascinating section of their post:

"College students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40% lower than those who came before them, according to a stunning new study presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers. It includes data from over 14,000 students.

Although we argue in Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered that modern child-rearing practices are putting empathy at risk, this is the largest study presented so far to quantify the decline.

Why might today's students be less empathetic than their elders? One of the culprits we identify in Born for Love is the way that they spent most of their time early in life. Today's kids play outdoors much less—and they spend far less time in unstructured activity with others than prior generations.

Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don't get to know each other very well. And you can't learn to connect and care if you don't practice these things Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003—right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.

Worse, much of the time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now spent in front of screens. Television, obviously cannot teach empathy. Even nonviolent kids' TV, research finds, is filled with indirect aggression and linked to increased real-world bullying. Though social media is an improvement on passive TV viewing and can sometimes aid real friendships, it is still less rich than face to face interaction. This is especially important for the youngest children whose brains are absorbing social information that will shape the way they connect for the rest of their lives."

Abandoning my daughter to the wild was the greatest parenting decision ever.

Maybe the most important discovery my daughter made last summer – when I abdicated my role as cruise director – was herself. Besides the excellent neighborhood gang activities, she spent a lot of time in the backyard digging worms or wrestling the dogs or singing into a tree branch or reading trashy teen magazines or writing in her journal or sitting in 'Woody,' her favorite tree and reading or Harriet-like spying with binoculars or reorganizing her room or pretending to be someone or something or putting on private shows for herself and the dogs or designing clothing by slicing up shirts or tying off sleeves with ponytail holders so everything's a tube top. She'd bolt into the house for a snack or Windex or a paint brush or dental floss and then, in a flash, disappeared.

I didn't ask. She didn't tell.

I'd fling open the door and yell DINNER and she, and the dogalanche, came running home.

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