Parent Wise

Let kids be kids in the summertime

With the long-structured school days behind them for the next two months, children have their sought after freedom from constant direction and the pressure of adult time schedules. Unless they don’t.

Free time

Many children will experience the freedom of unstructured time to play, invent, imagine, create and, yes, be bored. Remember those days? That’s when summer seemed to go for years and we were so ready and excited to start school again. Either time is speeding up, or we’re messing with our brains by way too much doing and not enough being.

This summer, I encourage you to spend some time being and allow your children as much being time as possible.

Recently in The Atlantic, correspondent Jessica Lahey — the title of her upcoming book says it all, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” — writes “Why Free Play is the Best Summer School” ( Free play, she asserts, is critical in the development of the executive functioning brain capacity — organizing, planning ahead, and foreseeing the consequences of their actions — of children and their ability to self-direct.

Lahey sites a recent study by psychologists at the University of Colorado focused on “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them.” The study found “that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control.”

“Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime,” claims Lahey, “is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health.”

And if you want to see what Wales is doing about free play, see Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic cover article, “The Overprotected Kid” ( It might raise your hackles but it’s the way we used to send our kids out to play before the media aroused our fears of any area 50 feet from the house.

So think twice when you are scheduling summertime classes and activities that do nothing more than offer a continuation of the adult-controlled rules and regulations that keep children on adults’ agendas, doing what adults say they should. When children don’t have the time to structure their own ideas and creativity, which often requires boredom as the yeast to make it rise, they grow dependent on others to tell them what to do and have great difficulty making decisions — sound familiar to any of you? The inventive neural pathways atrophy, and children grow lethargic and unable to initiate activities or plans of their own.

Ask yourself, “Am I scheduling these activities so I don’t have to deal with my kid whining about being bored and having to play with him?”

Many of you must provide adult-supervised time for your children while you work. Insure that your child’s caregivers allow children free time to initiate play and to be alone or with other children to invent their play, their rules, their projects.

Family time is usually at a premium during the school year and often consists of eating, with nagging about what and how much to eat; driving back and forth to scheduled activities, with nagging about being late and not remembering the hockey stick; homework time, with nagging about getting to it, doing it better, and misspelling words; and bedtime, with nagging about getting to bed. Hopefully once in bed your child gets to relax with a little reading, back rubbing and a song or two.

Carve out more relaxed family time when you don’t have to get anywhere, and the only plan involves who has the first serve.

Family vacation time

Vacation time, even though it may not be alone adult time for you, is about family. Vacations provide a refueling for children when they finally have their parents’ undivided attention. For this reason, do not bring friends along. Face it, you do that so you can have that adult time and you don’t have to deal with your kid whining, “this sucks” or being crabby about the exotic food (read, anything but mac and cheese). A family vacation is a family vacation is a family vacation. Use it to be with your children — watch, listen, and learn. Let them make some of the plans about what to do — even if it means the whole family watching “SpongeBob” or “American Idol” together.

May I even be so bold as to suggest that the whole family travel unplugged and just see what happens! Anticipate anger, even temporary hatred. Then anticipate spending time together.

You have all kinds of goals for your children during their academic years. You want them to succeed; you encourage good grades and good learning. But school isn’t the only place where good learning happens. It also happens when kids get together to play a game and make up their own rules and fight about who’s “it. ” It happens when children build cities and roadways out of blocks and Legos. It happens when they doodle in the sand looking bored. It happens when they watch bugs crawl.

But just as you should not orchestrate your child’s academic career by overseeing their math facts and building their science projects, you should also not oversee their down time. Let them be bored, let them figure out what to do to fill their time. And spend a lot of good old “being” time with them this summer.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email

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