The downside of unstructured summer play

Even with the studies encouraging parents to let their kids enjoy the outdoors, there's a downside to unstructured summer play.

1Jen Isaac on one of his fishing adventures. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

There are five days of school left for my son and—I won't lie—I have a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I'm staring 60 days of "what should I do with my kids?" in the face and it's not pretty. Even the allure of not making school lunches doesn't make me feel any better (because that just means my kids will complain about their food right in front of me, as opposed to at school).

That feeling of dread comes from the fact that I know, as soon as my kids wake up at the crack of dawn on the first day of summer vacation, they will say: "I'm bored."

Over the past few weeks, I've read countless articles and studies on the value of unstructured summer play and I understand the benefits. Everything from The Atlantic's coverage of a University of Colorado study about how kids who have opportunities to play without adult supervision have better cognitive skills to Catherine Newman's essay in The New York Times Motherlode section about how her kids take to free play by teaching themselves cool new skills—these all tell me not to plan every little activity for my kids this summer. I mean, my mom never micromanaged my summer play and my childhood summer vacations were awesome. Mind you, that benign neglect was out of necessity since she was a single parent managing a farm and the summers were her busiest time of year.

Don't get me wrong, my kids already benefit from hours of outdoor play and my free-range parenting method means that, more often not, Gillian and Isaac make up their own imaginative games using sticks and rocks. But their young ages often equal short attention spans, with them always coming back to me begging for entertainment. Telling them to "go play" doesn't always cut it, and it almost always leads to my house getting trashed and someone crying or bleeding. For example, this morning I told them to practice casting their fishing rods in the driveway so I could finish up this blog post, and both kids hooked their own legs and bled all over their clothes. Gillian even tore a hole in her favourite dress.

But maybe that's the part of unstructured play that gets glossed over in news articles and studies—the noise, mess and general chaos of young children. No one tells you that ignoring your kids is hard, because it's our instinct to keep them comfortable and happy. But I'm learning it's sometimes necessary if my kids are to learn how to play on their own.

Now if I can just get them to stop casting their fishing rods at each other. Or maybe I should just buy more bandages—I have a feeling I'm going to need them this summer.


Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

This article was originally published on Jun 23, 2014

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