Unstructured Play

For many kids, the school year is a long and stressful experience. When summer rolls around, they are in serious need of some well-earned down time. A chance to wake up in the morning and linger over breakfast, to enjoy all the pleasures of being a kid and not rushing out the door, are in high-demand and perhaps much deserved.

“While I am an advocate of parents providing the structure of supervision, allowing kids to take a break and not always having to be ‘on’ or entertained allows them some room to be creative and learn how to tolerate boredom,” says Teresa L. Burnett, a licensed clinical social worker and mother of two in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

And Burnett believes that kids aren’t the only ones in need of a break from the hectic pace of the school year. Parents do, too.

What's right for your child, you?

While there are endless summer camps to choose from -- summer camps for teenagers, weight loss camps for kids, Jewish camps, Christian camps, music camps, acting camps -- families must decide if they are up for maintaining a busy schedule. Is the hustle needed to get the kids to and from camp worth the hassle? Would it be easier for everyone to take a respite for a few months?

Before putting the brakes on all scheduled summer activities, parents should evaluate the needs of each child – as well as their own availability of getting kids to their activities.

“Certain children do better with something scheduled and something to look forward to,” Burnett says. “I asked my 14-year-old daughter this question, and she agreed that children would have happier memories of childhood if their summers were spent outside enjoying nature and hanging out at home.”

While some parents might consider kids taking the summer off as a waste of time, others argue strongly for letting children be, well, children.

Christina Schwarz writes in the April 2011 Atlantic magazine that “childhood—those first, fresh experiences of the world, unclouded by reason and practicality, when you are the center of existence and anything might happen—should be regarded less as a springboard to striving adulthood than as a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life, whether you rise in the world or not.”

A time to connect, relax

Burnett sees plenty of upsides to letting the kids take the summer off from structured activities. Her own kids reconnect with the family, spend time reading, cooking, or exploring the creek behind their house. They wind up hitting Tulsa museums and street festivals, and they all enjoy the opportunities for conversation and connection.

“While accomplishments and competition help direct energy and drive our society” says Burnett, who is also a licensed music therapist, “so many parents are exhausted with the pace of life.  Lightening the schedule and slowing the pace can help us all become more accomplished human ‘be’-ings rather than human doings.”

On the down side to a summer spent without structure? Days spent playing Xbox Kinect rather than making any real connections. Time on questionable pursuits could be better spent cultivating lifelong skills like learning to play a musical instrument or developing a sports ability or mastering an academic pursuit.

There has to be a bit of structure to the unstructured time.

Option 1: Sleep away camp

Option 3: Summer school

Return to summer vacation with MomMD

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