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Savoring summer: The value of unstructured play

Summer is here — school is out. Remember what that felt like? Freedom! I always got that same old feeling every time my kids were out for the summer. It was as if I were out, too. My daughter, her friend and mother and I had a traditional lunch at Nonie’s every last day of the school year. It was a wonderful day. The whole summer was ahead of us.

My daughter now lives in Brooklyn and my son is on summer vacation but from the other side of the desk as a teacher in the South Bronx. My empty nest has been empty for quite some time.

No parent understands how quickly childhood passes until it has passed. Those of us on the other side of it offer advice to cherish every moment while you have it. But we didn’t cherish every moment either because we didn’t understand — then. When we’re in the midst of raising young children, each day seems endless and exhausting, and the possibility of life without little ones under foot demanding our attention, refusing to go to bed and pushing our buttons looks rather appealing. But it goes by all too fast. And summers go by even faster (especially in New England).

Remember when summers lasted forever? It must have been because we just hung out and played all day long. When I think back to those Nonie’s lunches and the freedom I so vicariously experienced, I realize how short summer vacation has become — how brief childhood really is. Summers are precious and an important time for letting down and relaxing the stresses of the school year. They are an important time for unstructured, child-directed play. All too soon, they will stop playing.

Our lives and our children’s lives are so structured, planned out and busy these days that the freedom of summer months can quickly get lost. Parents work full-time, children remain in structured care year round, time seems to be speeding up.

We put little value on children’s unstructured, unsupervised play. We sign them up for adult directed programs, we hire tutors and coaches so they won’t forget what they learned during the year, we don’t trust them to hang out together. What’s happened?

Childhood is a valuable experience that stays with us as we enter adulthood and beyond. If it has been filled with good play, we are more likely to seek out play the rest of our lives. If play has always been adult directed and structured, it may not be so valuable to our later experiences.

Peterborough’s Thomas Moore says in his book, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, “We have little or no trust that a child’s knowledge is real knowledge, that their play is important work, or that the animated world they inhabit is as true as the Newtonian world we prefer. We believe firmly that we have to teach them and that we have nothing to learn from them. In an enchanted world, it would make sense to let children do some of the teaching and to give lessons in what they know best — play, animism, and charm, the very things our culture lacks.”

For too many of us, our childish sense of wonder and awe was more often squelched than encouraged, our mysteries and fears overprotected, and our fantasies reined in. We were given messages that our laughter, play, spontaneity, and babble were annoying, inconvenient, or burdensome. Our play soon turned to work; our fantasies died with childhood; our spontaneity became organized; our curiosity turned to skepticism.

This summer, let your children play, get bored, be spontaneous, experience the freedom that summer offers, leave time for nothing special, do their own thing, create in ways that don’t happen in school, and then watch and learn from them. If you must plan, plan for at least a few lazy days of hanging out. And let them do some of the directing and planning. Trust them to play valuably with each other. Trust that time with no adults telling them what to do is important for their development.

And take it from me. Cherish every minute of it. It is gone so soon.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed,. is the director of Connective Parenting. She founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she continues to teach.

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