Every year about this time there are at least three reactions parents have to the prospect of a long, hot, sweaty (did I mention long?) summer break: 1. Yaahhhooooooooooo it’s time for the BEEAACCCHH!!!! 2. What the heck am I going to do with these kids for three months?! 3. Summer? What summer? The kids go to camps and tutors non-stop.
While my kids will be reading and keeping up with some math, I’m all about letting the kids loose outside in the backyard and only letting them inside for popsicles. Why? Because research shows that although children need education and structure, they also need lots of time for free play.
Where I live on the East Coast, it seems normal to heavily structure and even overschedule kids during the school year. Would it be the American way if kids didn’t do school work, music practice, art lessons, basketball practice, playdates and family time—all in one day? Yet now that trend has seeped into summer. Many parents I know put their kids in weekly structured day or sleep-away camps all summer long. Or the kids continue to do summer school in lieu of the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” to quote an old Nat King Cole song.
I’m as pro-education as the next Type A parent, but kids learn through play as much as they learn in school; some experts argue they learn more. In fact, Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, has dedicated his life to this topic of kids and what he calls free play, which he defines as unstructured, mostly unsupervised play. It’s a natural way for kids to learn, solve problems, and develop in a healthy manner. He explored this fully in his book Free to Learn, but I found this recent interview with Nick Gillespie to be one of the most insightful examinations of this subject.
Through interviews with anthropologists and his own research, Gray makes the case that a hallmark of healthy children who thrive as adults and solve problems independently was the significant amount of unstructured, free play they experienced. He cites statistics that show that, during the last fifty years, depression, suicide and other forms of mental illness have increased among children. Whether during times of economic crisis, wartime or peacetime, anxiety increased. The cause? Time in school has increased while recess and free play have decreased. Gray argues that we now have kids who are not only anxious or depressed but also lack the ability to handle normal setbacks, such as receiving a low grade or solving an interpersonal dispute, without adult intervention. If you doubt this, just take a quick look at today’s college campuses.
Even in ancient times, children played, largely without adult supervision, from the time they were four until their early teen years. “Children are biologically designed to do this. It’s as important to them as eating,” Gray told Gillespie. “Throughout time and across cultures,” he says, “children play more than any other mammals” because of their significant learning curve which includes language-building, getting along with peers, and learning how to control emotions.
Through decades of research, Gray has come to believe one of the greatest frustrations for children in our modern era is the “school industrial complex,” which forces kids to sit still for long periods of time and has nearly eradicated recess. “School has become an abnormal setting for children,” he says. “Instead of admitting that, we say the children are the problem.”
“[Play] is the natural way that children develop,” he argues. “When we began to take that away, children were being deprived of something that in their bones, in their gut, in every part of their DNA is driving them to do that and now they can’t do it.”
Of course, in two-parent households where both parents work outside the home, or for single parents who work, summertime creates a childcare challenge. They need the services of day camps, nannies, or tutors to be able to work regular hours and to ensure their children have a productive, fun, supervised summer. Even for those parents, however, I’d still encourage them to let their kids enjoy free play in the evenings or on weekends.
As for households where one parent stays home or is home often? Sure, try a day camp, encourage the kids to read, work on crafts, and complete chores. Then throw the kids in the backyard or pack up the boogie boards and watermelon for a day at the beach—and just let them play.
Research has yet to validate the concept of structuring and overscheduling our kids’ days with the goal of producing little Renaissance People. A day spent running in and out of the surf while the sun beams down on them remains in my kids’ memories longer than a three-month stretch of school. Something about running through the sprinkler, splashing in the waves, or sitting on the front step eating ice cream, nourishes the soul of little people who spend the rest of the year wrangling math, sounding out words, and rushing to soccer or basketball practice. This summer, be the stop-gap between school drudgery and summer overscheduling and let kids learn the way they do best: Through good old-fashioned play.