Family life

Summer education: Learning through experience

There’s more to life than academics, and summer gives kids some breathing space to learn other important skills.

Tracy

Avery isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Photo: iStockphoto

I’m full of to-do lists this week to prepare my eight-year-old for her first-ever week at sleepaway camp. Someone asked me this week, “Do you want to cry just thinking about it?” Actually, no. I’m good. I’m thrilled that she’s excited to go. We’ve had a couple of Girl Guide weekend camps this year to prep her (and me) and if I was ever reluctant about sending her, that’s been cured. She has come back from her camps changed ever so slightly, and in such good ways. It’s not just about the skills she’s learned, but the characteristics she’s building by being on her own. She learns to figure things out and what she’s capable of. She learns that she can’t always have her way, or be first, and how to manage her emotions when she’s disappointed or angry. She picks up after herself and keeps track of her stuff because no one else is going to do that for her. She tries out things I would never think to show her (or don’t know how to do myself). She comes back with a smile on her face, looking a little taller, brighter, prouder. A week is a whole new thing, but I’m already excited for pick-up day to hear about every little thing.

Read more: Sleepover camp: How to prepare your kids>

It’s reminded me of how important summer is. Not just because life is easier without jackets and socks, but our kids have this wonderful opportunity to explore different parts of their brains and gain skills that are just as important. My husband and I still have to work most of the summer, so my kids are in a lot of camps, but even if the morning and evening schedule is similar, the hours between are filled with very different things.

This is the first year my five-year-old is also taking part in camps, so it’s going to be a whole new world for her. And as much as I like to keep her in the you’ll-always-be-my-baby bubble, she’s pumped to join her big sister in camp. She too is going to have to learn, for the first time, how to manage in a herd with mixed ages instead of a classroom, how to make new friends and deal with fallouts, how to take care of herself and speak up for herself. She is like my baby bird leaving the nest, and I can see her flapping those wings, so ready to take off.

Speaking of which, my kids are accidentally learning things around home that are sparking their curiosity. We were lucky enough to have a mourning dove build a nest in the hanging basket on our front porch (we had to consult online friends to find out which type of bird it was). Over weeks, my girls watched as the mama bird kept her eggs safe and warm. One day, Anna went up to check on things and the mama bird was gone. I knew that meant one thing: the babies were born. The girls got to see the birds grow an amazing amount in a very short time (I wish we’d gotten to see them eating, but never managed to catch that). One afternoon, we discovered just one baby bird alone in his nest. He was flapping his wings, then would get tired and nestle back in. The next day, he too had flown the coop—it had only taken 10 days from hatching to leaving the nest—and we never saw any of them again.

On a more orchestrated note, we were also corralled by my husband into doing a family World Cup pool. He got out the globe and showed them the country flags and the girls picked their countries. They did it while I was at work and I got last pick, but wouldn’t you know it—I’m winning (Netherlands and Costa Rica foreva)! Not only are the kids quick at trying to identify the flags on cars right now, they’re interested in watching soccer on TV for the first time in their lives. So really, Sean wins regardless.

They’re also learning some practical things: when you stay up way past your bedtime a few nights in a row, you get really cranky; that “what’s summer without popsicles?” only works a time or two, and “I’m bored” is never to be uttered in my presence; how life and work don’t stop for the rest of us because school is out; how much they both love school (Avery started bawling last night. When I asked her what was wrong she sobbed, “I very, very miss my teachers!”)

Read more: 50 essential summer activities>

Summer won’t change our love of reading with our kids, or their love of playing school (which has them both practising printing and math and spelling in tasks that they make up for each other, so that works for me!), but I look at it as a couple of months to work on some of the other skills we don’t always have time to focus on in the bustling school months. They’re doing more cooking with me already, helping with gardening and talking about reorganizing their bedrooms and how they’ll keep them super-tidy (I’ll believe it when I see it).

Summer is also a time for me to take a breath and not have to work so hard on the teaching and planning and reminding (and reminding and reminding). So now that my girls have seen fresh proof of the value of a consistent bedtime after a series of late nights, I can embrace my favourite summer activity: Sitting on the front porch in the evening with a good book after they hit the sack. I learn a tremendous amount doing this.

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her@T_Chappell.