Is a summer packed with science and sports camps, reading assignments and math practice the only responsible choice?
Have you failed if your fifth grader isn’t learning to code or build tools with 3D printers?
Should you be pushing your child out the door, directing them to find the nearest park on their own?
The answer to all of those questions is probably no, says Alvin Rosenfeld, author of “The Over-Scheduled Child” and perhaps the most quoted man in articles warning of the possible consequences of accounting for too many minutes of your child’s day.
(These consequences, by the way, can include depression, anxiety and a lack of creativity and problem solving skills.)
Most parents Rosenfeld encounters say developing a strong character is most important. “Unfortunately, actions don’t always follow aspirations in terms of saying character is most important,” he said.
And unscheduled time with family, but without goals or plans, is key to character development, Rosenfeld said. Those are the times children are more likely to wonder about the world and to ask questions.
“Families that play together stay together,” said Fran Mainella, former director of the National Park Service who co-chairs the board of the U.S. Play Coalition. Family play helps kids develop social skills like communication, “so when tougher situations come up, the fact that they’ve played together makes it so they can better communicate in those situations, too.”
And unplanned family time has the added benefit of helping parents and children learn more about each other. “So you know your parents, and your parents know you,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s an essential facet of emotional health. If you feel your parents know you, love you and care for you, life can be difficult, it can challenge you, throw you curves, but you’ll always have that recollection inside and feel beloved.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean evenings should be spent staring at each other across the dinner table, he said.
“If you’re interested, getting taught to play the saxophone, or ice hockey, or gymnastics is terrific,” he said. Just don’t fill all your time with it. “An increase in stress increases performance until you reach a tipping point — then there is a dramatic and total crash.”
Avoiding a ‘total crash’ means striking a balance
Few children get to experience the kind of summers idealized in movies — playing games and riding bikes with their friends in the neighborhood. Research shows that can mean weight gain and a loss of academic skills, especially for low-income children. A 2007 study found one measure of weight increased up to twice as fast for some children during the summer when compared to weight gain during the school year. Other research concludes children can lose as much as two months of math and reading proficiency over the summer.
Summer programs can also be a place where kids who struggle to focus in traditional classrooms can flourish, according to Sarah Pitcock, CEO of the National Summer Learning Association.
“These are kids told throughout the school year that they’re a problem, that they’re bad kids,” she said. “And so often, we see those kids excel and become leaders in a summer setting.”
But for every week of intensive activity or sleepaway camp, Dorothy Sluss said, children need three weeks of less-structured time.
Sluss is an associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at James Madison University and president of the U.S. chapter of the International Play Association.
Children, young children especially, do need time to play and explore and, Sluss said. They need time to just do nothing.
“We may see sitting on a blanket in the yard, looking at the clouds as a waste of time,” she said. “But children view that as a time to wonder, to grow. That’s when they develop and have sensory stimulation.”
Hard and fast rules on numbers of activities or hours of free time aren’t necessary, Rosenfeld said. Parents should listen to their instincts.
“If you sense you’ve gone beyond the tipping point, cut back 5 percent, cut back one night a week, have a “no-activity day” twice a month,” he said. “You’ll feel you have to yell at your kids a little less and that you’re not in crazy zone anymore.”