by Dr. Dathan Paterno
Summer. For kids, it is synonymous for heaven; for most adults, it means relief and joy. To some parents, however, it is both a blessing and a curse. There is confusion over what to do with the vast amounts of unstructured time, questions about whether children should work on academic skills or should just be left alone, and indecision about what chunks of time should be structured and planned and which should be left for them to manage on their own?
These are important questions. Summer consumes nearly a quarter of the year, so there is quite a bit of time to consider and a significant amount of benefit that can be gained from using that time wisely (or, conversely, wasted).
Most importantly, children need a balance of several important needs:
- A balance of parent-induced structure and freedom to choose
- A balance of outside time and inside time.
- A balance of purposeful, meaningful activity/work and relaxation (“down time”).
- A balance of work and play.
School provides a great deal of the structure your child needs during the year. During summer—especially if both parents work—children can be left with too much unstructured time. Long gone are the days I recall where children were safe wandering the neighborhood on their own, returning home at dark. Today’s child needs a greater external safety structure, so a good chunk of your child’s day should be structured in some way—either in a class, camp, lessons, tutoring, sport: something where there is ample adult supervision. The rest of the day should be split between the child’s choices and whatever the family does as a unit.
Weather permitting, it is important for your child to be outside. Children need exercise, and summer is the optimal time for exploring all sorts of physical activities outside that wouldn’t be available during the school year. Some examples are riding bikes, swimming at the pool, outdoor parks, camping, catching fireflies, and nighttime games like Kick the Can and Ghost in the Graveyard. During the hotter months, it is important that children have a “home base” where they can go inside, cool off, refuel with food and water, and give the parents a chance to reconnect with their child.
Insist that your child spend some time outside. If they protest that they cannot find things to do, replace your gardener or landscaper with child labor!
Children need a significant amount of what I call “belly button-picking time”. This is the time where kids relax, “veg out”, watch TV, slump in a chair, and other things that make them look rather slothful. If this is all your child wants to do, then crack the whip and give him a choice between a huge list of chores or do something active or meaningful. But don’t be too upset if your child wants a few hermit-like hours included in her day.
Finally, your child should not cease all work during the summer. For elementary age children, they should continue to perform daily and weekly chores. Reading is important; some experts suggest that 30 minutes per day helps stave off regression of reading fundamentals. Similarly, it is not a bad idea to include some math practice, since those skills often dissipate during the summer. However, most children do not need heavy-duty summer school or a tutor during the summer. A worksheet of math problems per week is plenty. Just remember to keep it fun, light-hearted, and simple.
If your child has specific needs that are addressed during the school year, such as a physical or learning disability, problems with speech, or emotional struggle then the summer isn’t the time to stop working on these needs. Just make sure that you do not overburden your child with work, to the point where there is too little time for play.
So begin discussing your summer, remembering to balance all of your child’s and family’s needs. Have a great summer!