Summer is almost upon us. I’d like to write about what your child should/could do with 2-3 months of free time.
For many of us, the school year is jam-packed with activities. Even though we worry our children are over-scheduled and we’re harried and exhausted chauffeuring them from activity to activity, we still do it. We don’t want our child to miss out on any important activity. Cut out sports? No way! We want our child to be healthy and fit and learn the value of team effort. Cut out music lessons? But our child seems talented and isn’t it helpful for their development? Cut out academic support tutoring? But our child could fall behind. Scheduled play dates? Necessary for our child’s social development.
And anyway, everyone else is doing it. I meet very few parents who “opt out” of the rat race of scheduled school year activities.
Which brings us to summer. Those lazy hazy days of summer. Should you even schedule anything for your child? I’m not sure “schedule” is the word I’d choose, but I do advise that parents try to “plan” or “craft” a rewarding summer for their child.
What would this look like?
Number One: It should be fun and interest driven.
Summer is usually not the time to work on improving weak academic skills, unless the child is far behind and the time is really needed to get them back on track. Even then, too much focus on academics can be bad for the child (unless that’s what they enjoy doing). They could burn-out, lose motivation and a love of learning altogether. So if you do need to get some academic skill tutoring done over the summer, be sure to plan fun, interest-driven things around it.
Number Two: The interests pursued should be your child’s genuine interests.
These are not necessarily those offered at the local day camp or the activities your child’s friends are pursuing. When my children were young I tried enrolling them in various day camps, but they’d come home miserable. It took me a while to realize that: a) they didn’t like and weren’t good at sports; and b) they were more interested in things outside the scope of these programs.
It takes a self-aware parent to put their own preferences and fears aside, and truly listen to what their child is saying.
Actually most children don’t actually say: “These are my interests and I’d like to do x, y and z over the summer to pursue them.” It takes observation, analysis, and reflection on your part as a parent to discern what “lights your child’s fire.”
I had some parents in my office recently who asked whether they should hire an academic skills tutor to solidify their child’s math skills over the summer and/or enroll their child in a local camp. The child was not behind in math. She didn’t love organized activities where she was made to do what someone else wanted her to do when they wanted her to do it. She liked to explore what she was interested in when she wanted to. She was really interested in nature. We decided the best thing would be to take her to the beach and explore tide pools, look for frogs in the forest, and go to the library to study books about what she discovers.
Number Three: There should probably be some structure to it.
Some children are self-motivated. When left to their own devices they’ll find something they’re interested in doing, and will be productive at pursuing it. But most aren’t. Maybe we’ve “trained” them to be told what to do when, and they’ve lost any natural ability to “entertain” themselves. Their lives are so scheduled during the school year they may have no idea what to do when school is out.
So some scaffolding is in order. Not over-scheduling, but scaffolding. I suggest advance planning to help your child pursue his or her interests. But first you have to know what they are.
Maybe your child has expressed clear interests from an early age. Or maybe you don't have any idea where to start.
If you don’t know what they're interested in, you can just directly ask them, in a non-judgmental way, what they’re interested in trying or doing more of, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, and animation to film making. If you’d like me to send you a copy of the Student Interests Questionnaire I use with children, just e-mail me and I’ll send it to you. You can also just reflect on how your child chooses to spend their free time, the books that absorb their interest, the kinds of exhibits that engage them in museums, and any other clue you can find to what intrigues them.
Once you know what your child’s interests are, be creative thinking of ways to help your child pursue them. Maybe there is a structured camp, or maybe you will need to source books, art supplies, science supplies, videos, a mentor, or plan outings. Find books and do internet searches to learn more about your child’s interest areas. Discover topic-specific magazines, websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Find out about lectures, conferences, webinars, and other special events. Uncover special interest clubs and organizations like star watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, and speech-making clubs. Ask experts for advice. My son was interested in building and engineering. I encouraged him to enter a Lego competition, enrolled him in an engineering course at Johns Hopkins CTY, and helped him find a summer internship with an engineering firm. My daughter was interested in marine biology. We found a lot of books and videos to watch, enrolled her in multiple marine biology-specific camps, and I accompanied her to a 6-week dolphin research project when she was 12 that required the interns be over 18 to participate (arguing that my presence brought our average age well above the 18-year old threshold).
Number Four: Allow for plenty of downtime.
I do think it’s good to have a plan and be purposeful about helping your child pursue their interests. But I also think it’s important to let them experience what it feels like to have to figure out how to entertain themselves. Time to slow down and explore may help them find new interests and reflect on what makes them happy. Boredom can be a good thing.
Because they are so used to being scheduled, children today may lack the resources, experience, and discipline to cope with boredom. Being bored can promote daydreaming, which allows us to make new, innovative connections. Boredom can be a catalyst for humor, fun, reflection, creativity and inspiration. There’s a nice article in Psychology Today about the benefits of boredom for children.
Summer is a wonderful time with so many opportunities and possibilities open to our children. Make it a truly rewarding time for your child by actively helping them pursue the things they are genuinely interested in while allowing for important down time.
And have fun!