A Case for the Unstructured Summer
Summer is for being bored. And that's a good thing.
Yesterday was sunny and warm, which has been rare for the Midwest this Spring. My daughter had an invitation to go play at the park with a friend, or go on a play date, instead, I sat outside and read a book while she dug a hole in the ground. I let her use her scissors to clip grass and she carried buckets from her water table and made a puddle of mud, then she stuck dried sticks in the mud and called it her garden. I didn’t stop her when she started trying to cut the tree or pulled up some of my flowers. She needed this unstructured time and so did I.
I have a hard time placing rules on outdoor play. Beyond “don’t run in the street, don’t throw rocks or ride your bike in the alley”, I let my daughter do whatever she wants in and to the backyard. So much of what I cherish from my own childhood were those unstructured moments—grinding up dandelions with rocks to make medicine for woodland creatures, building tents with dirt floors, army crawling under holly bushes, lying on the ground and trying to peek in that place between the grass and the ground to see if I could find fairies. I want to recreate that for her.
Many of my friends have their 2- and 3-year-olds enrolled in sports, art camps, and a myriad of activities that will keep them going from breakfast to dinner. I too was looking forward to a busy summer. Sports. Science camp. Dance camp. But as I looked at our calendar and tried to plan around vacations and family visits, I gave up. This summer, I have my daughter signed up for one week of dance camp and a couple sessions of swimming lessons. But the rest of the summer will be picnics, parks, pool, running around naked in the backyard, and digging holes in the ground. I want her to learn how to play by herself without me or a friend there. I want her to be bored.
Despite Amber Alerts and reports of razors on playgrounds, the world is actually safer for children than it used to be. Accidental death rates for children are lower today than in the 19th and 20th century. Yet, despite the increase in safety, children are spending more time in structured activities and indoors. In his essay “The Play Deficit” psychologist Peter Gray believes that the loss of childhood freedom and unstructured free time is the catalyst for a loss of creativity, problem solving and the inability of children to think for themselves. In her essay “The Overprotected Kid” Hannah Rosin argues that parents are shielding children from phantom dangers—the chances of being abducted by a stranger are far less likely than injury in a car accident with mom at the wheel. And yet, we pack our children in cars everyday, but we won’t let them play without us. She writes:
There is a big difference between avoiding major hazards and making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness). We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one; remind yourself of that every time the panic rises.
The case for unstructured play is the case for freedom—For sword-fighting with sticks and using Dad’s shovel to dig to China. And freedom is what summer is all about. Long lazy days rolling in the dry grass. Jumping through the sprinkler in your nudy booty, while mom sits with the baby and drinks coffee on the porch. And if we’re bored and restless then so be it. Perhaps it will inspire us to get down in the grass and try to find some hidden magic.
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