What Should Kids Do This Summer?
Children benefit from self-driven summers that balance structure and downtime.
Posted Jul 18, 2018
It’s summertime, and a familiar dilemma ensues: Pack your child’s schedule with camps and summer school? Or let him laze about and relax? Many factors play into your decision—the age of the child and whether he needs supervision, your financial constraints, your logistical limitations. But let’s assume for a moment that the world is perfect and neither finances or logistics are an issue. What do you need to consider as the summer months stretch ahead?
Downtime is productive.
A hundred years ago, educators worried about year-round school, hewing to the view that young minds, like productive farmland, needed time to lay fallow. As you find yourself eager to snap your child out of a reverie and encourage her to do something “productive,” remind yourself that downtime IS productive. When the brain is at rest—daydreaming, staring into space, meditating, and sleeping—it is consolidating new information and skills, making connections that only come with what we call radical downtime. When given time to rest, the brain is healthier when it returns to a period of activity. We are typically terrible about allowing ourselves or our kids time for this rest. A recent series of studies1 found that 64 percent of young men and 15 percent of young women chose to self-administer a mild electric shot rather than sit quietly with their own thoughts for as little as six minutes! So resist your impulse to “task” your child when she is staring absently into the clouds. Important work is being done—you just can’t see it.
Watching television is not downtime.
Sorry, kids. Unfortunately, every hour of screen time for kids is associated with increased blood pressure, while every hour spent reading is associated with decreased blood pressure. Screen time is linked not just with physical health problems, but mental health problems, attention problems, and behavior problems. You don’t have to throw the television out the window, but it’s not a good summertime solution. Use it in moderation.
Passionate pursuit of pastimes builds motivation.
Researcher Reed Larson has studied the development of motivation in children and teens, and he’s found that a feeling of “flow” is the secret sauce. When kids are highly engaged in an activity they find challenging, but that isn’t stressful, neurochemicals in the brain like dopamine spike. This enhances the brain’s capacity to be motivated in general, even when it comes to things they might otherwise find hard to get excited about. Summer, therefore, is a great opportunity to build the brain’s motivational capacity. Let’s suppose your kid loves Legos and can spend hours playing with them, but during the school year he doesn’t have that luxury. Enter summertime, and Lego camp or even just a visit to the Lego store to stock up. Whatever their passion, give them precious time and space to pursue it and know that it is enhancing their ability to be a focused, engaged, and motivated human being. Resist pushing kids to always make “good use of their time” with academic enrichment programs: Let them do what they are into rather than what is “valuable,” as the engagement and drive matter more than the content.
When possible, make it their call.
There are obviously limits to the decisions your child can make involving the summer schedule. Finances, carpool schedules, siblings, obligatory family reunions, and childcare needs will all factor into what is feasible for summertime planning. But where possible, encourage your child to make decisions about how to spend his time. If there’s a community center camp schedule, let him browse the catalog and mark what he’d like to do. Don’t put him in a baking camp because you think it’s an important skill. And—this one might surprise you—don’t force summer school or academic tutoring if your child is opposed to it. Kids benefit very little from academic help they resist and don’t feel they need or want. Ask “what do you think about some work on math this summer? Or, can I entice you into reading more this summer if we got books that are really fun for you? Do you think that would help you?” Aim for questions that are inquisitive rather than inquisitorial. Talk through the pros and cons of various summertime decisions, and make sure your child is making an informed decision, but then if it’s feasible, go with it.
The best summer camps have clear, but limited, rules and regulations, within which kids have tremendous autonomy, choosing “personal majors” or exercising control in “free choice.” Even if summer camp is more “Welcome to ‘Camp Staycation,’” building downtime, passionate pastimes, and autonomy into kids’ schedules will help them recharge and even rewire their brains for growth and development that will serve them during the school year as well.
1 Wilson, T. et al (2014). Just think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind. Science.