On YouTube, there's a commercial from the 1990s for Country Time Lemonade Ice Tea. The narrator starts off: "Summer will be a short 94 days this year. . ." The reel of images is idyllic: Kids chase each other in a yard with a hose, others balance barefoot on a stone wall that meanders along a pasture, still others roll inner tubes toward a gleaming lake.
The message is clear: Summer is a time for uninhibited fun, for exploring, for relaxing with friends and family. Most important, summer is "slow."
Watching that commercial, I was struck with the thought: When did summers stop being slow?
My children are 4 and 6 and creating our summer schedule put me in a frenzy. I had my workload to balance and I wanted my son and daughter to be learning and socializing with their peers. My plan involved enrolling my 6-year-old son in four different camps over the summer and my daughter in a different one. In addition, there would be swimming, tennis, art, and dance classes for one or both. One beautiful day, as I shuffled between drop-offs and pickups, I realized I'd spent the majority of it in the car.
In search of a "slower" existence, I dropped a couple of camps, nixed the art and dance classes, and we spent more time at home. Some days, we've done little more than go to the farmer's market, hunt for rocks on the beach, or run through the backyard sprinkler. Some sweltering afternoons, I turned on the AC and the three of us stayed inside; I even carved out time to read a book while the kids devised their own game, which felt blissful.
Many parents feel pressure to have kids constantly engaged in activities — not only throughout the school year but during the summer. And given how many women work outside the home — which often means they need child care all summer long — day camps, lessons, and other structured activities have become necessities.
But whenever possible, parents shouldn't be afraid to let kids have ample unscheduled time, says Janine Halloran, a licensed mental health counselor and mother of children ages 6 and 8,
"When every moment of the day isn't scheduled or spent onscreen, kids have the opportunity to create their own fun," says Halloran. "Give them simple supplies like cardboard and duct tape and see what interesting things they come up with."
Halloran points out that summer can be a time to connect with your children.
"Ask them to help plan the day's activity. It doesn't have to be a big activity: go to the library, take a walk somewhere you don't go very often. Introduce them to Monopoly and allow the game to be set up on the table for a day or two," she suggests.
Unstructured time in the summer presents the opportunity for parents to observe their children. "Are they into running and jumping? Arts and crafts? Sewing? Take them to a playground and see how they play with other kids," adds Halloran.
To be sure, not every parent has the flexibility to offer their child a slow, unstructured summer, just as many parents lack the financial resources to send their kids to a variety of summer camps. For those who can, the key is to be clear on what situations your kids thrive in.
Lindsay Miller, a South Shore mother of three boys, ages 4, 5, and 8, strives to take things one minute at a time during the summer.
"My kids are not good when we're rushing all over the place. I want their summers to be as relaxing as possible," says Miller, a self-employed doula who takes several weeks off in the summer to spend time with her sister and nephew who visit from California. "It's important that we really focus on family time."
Miller recalls that her childhood summers were about playing with neighborhood kids.
"We went to the beach, took swimming lessons, and made up gymnastics routines in the yard — that was kind of it, and it was great."
Miller focuses on doing simple summer activities with her kids. They spend time at the beach, frequent local playgrounds, and sometimes, the high school track; one day their mission was to find locally grown corn.
"My kids enjoy being around the house, we don't have an elaborate yard with a pool or a trampoline. We have a swing set and Popsicles in the freezer. At the end of the day, there are Wiffle balls and bats all over the yard," she says. They live in a neighborhood with a lot of kids who are around most days. "There's a lot of playing from house to house, which helps a lot."
While some parents see summer as a time to brush up on academics, giving your kids time for unstructured play can help your kids developmentally more than you realize, says Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist who blogs at DrPsychMom.com.
"There is a ton of research on the importance of play," she says. "It helps children's brains develop creativity and problem-solving skills. If natural play is taken away, they get depressed and anxious.
"In general, kids are over-scheduled and the summer is the same way in a lot of households," says Rodman, who has three children, ages 2, 4, and 6. "Parents think they are doing something great by signing up their kids for all the things they wish they'd been able to do. But kids are seldom happy running between five different activities."
Furthermore, sports clinics and dance camps often put children in the position of being constantly evaluated, Rodman says. "That adds pressure to a kid — now they are being evaluated not only at school but at camp as well."
Finding the right balance isn't easy. Miller says her summer isn't perfect; there are stressful points along the way, but she tries to keep in mind that childhood is fleeting.
"My kids will be going off in their friends' cars before I know it," she says. She recalls a recent evening when she and her 8-year-old hung out together on the porch.
"We got into telling each other silly knock-knock jokes and were just cracking each other up. I want him to remember special summer moments like that."