What happened to the lazy days of summer? For busy families where both parents work, summer can mean a rushed schedule of day camps, work and evening activities. Yet there are several good reasons to “unschedule” your summer—even just a little bit.
“We didn’t sign up for any activities last summer,” says Sue Luff, who has five children between 18 months and 10 years. “I was really judged for that; people said, ‘Really? They’re not going to do anything?’ But the kids really enjoyed it. They liked that we weren’t on the go all the time. I really noticed a positive change in their behaviour. I think having the choice about what to do made them feel more in control.”
Kids really benefit from unstructured time, says Carl Honoré, author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-parenting and the parent of two children.“It’s that timeless childhood need for getting dirty and being out of sight of your parents,” he says. Playing together in an unstructured way also teaches kids how to build relationships and get along with others. They learn this best when adults aren’t too quick to jump in and solve issues.
Try these ways to free time even when your child’s days are pretty booked:
If both parents are working, it’s harder to give your child time and space for free play because you’re relying on child care. Honoré suggests choosing a day camp where there’s some unstructured play built into the program.
Honoré recommends keeping four or five evenings free each week during the summer. “That way you can surrender to the moment. If you decide to have a barbecue or go for a bike ride, you can.” And there’s nothing wrong with just hanging out together.
“If you ask people what they remember about their childhood,” says Honoré, “those over 25 remember being outside. The under- 25s remember being inside.” That’s a real loss, he says, because the great outdoors “is the original learning place.” Whether they are exploring a creek bank or building fairy beds in the garden, kids are using their imagination, negotiating the rules of the game and figuring out what to do next.
“Find the other families with kids,” says Honoré. “Make connections; invite the other parents for an informal coffee and figure out what you can do to make your neighbourhood safe for kids to play.” Olympic rower Silken Laumann wrote in her book, Child’s Play, about how parents in her neighbourhood take turns supervising the kids at the local park.
When you know your neighbours, the ’hood becomes safer for everyone. The woman down the block who’s always out in her garden is probably keeping an eye out; the road hockey game is more likely to be tolerated if everyone knows the kids.
When kids are outside playing, they need a watchful eye—but it’s important not to hover. Let kids work out their problems. If they need your help, they’ll come and find you.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology—except when it begins to dominate a child’s life. “If kids are spending too much time in front of a screen,” says Honoré, “switch it off and boot them outside. You may be unpopular, but sometimes we have to take the hit as parents.”
“We need to find the middle ground between totally dropping out and totally signing up,” says Honoré. It’s not going to hurt your child to spend a rainy day watching movies, nor are kids who spend much of their summer in day camp missing out on quality family time. “You know your family’s needs best. Try to work out the best balance and scheduling that suits you—without succumbing to the swirl of activity modern parenting can become.”
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