By Jami Ingledue
A few weeks ago, I looked out the kitchen window into our scruffy backyard, littered with toys and bicycles. And I saw my five-year-old son, deeply immersed in his endeavor, taping rectangles of cardboard to his feet with miles and miles of masking tape. (I long ago gave up on keeping him from the tape—and the scissors, despite more than one hair-cutting incident.)
He explained to me that he was making “Ant Smashers.” He had a snack sitting on the patio, and the Ant Smashers™ allowed him to protect his picnic from the encroaching insect population. (Yes, it is rather violent, but anybody who has a boy like mine understands that some level of violence just comes with the territory.)
He had requested that daddy cut these same cardboard rectangles earlier in the day to be wings for his cardboard box airplane. Completely his design and his idea. And it really did look like an airplane, by golly, one just his size.
As he demonstrated the Ant Smashers™ for me, I wondered: if he had been in expensive camps and programs all summer, would he have had the chance to create them?
Because our summer was really pretty boring. We did take a vacation to the beach, which was exciting, but only because somebody else was paying for the lodgings. (Thanks Grandma!) We had family visiting for a while, and three boys ages seven and under is not boring, especially as they’ve all learned to pummel each other while no one is looking. (See what I mean about violence?) We went to the pool a few times, the library a few times. We didn’t make it to the zoo till August. But mostly he puttered around the yard, played with the hose, had friends over, found toads and bugs and locust shells and cool rocks, shimmied up the door frames, attempted to dismantle the house, and, admittedly, had way too much screen time.
In other words, the same kind of summers I had as a kid.
We didn’t have as many playdates as I’d like (read: a chance for parents to chat and ignore their children) because so many of his friends were signed up for cool camps all summer. Zoo camp, nature camp, horseback riding camp, science camp, gymnastics camp, swimming lessons, etc. etc.
And Lord knows I understand why. My oldest went to many summer camps when I worked full-time, and when Grandmas weren’t available. It’s wonderful for kids to see exciting new things, interact with other kids, and have new experiences.
And parents can go crazy over the summer dealing with their kids all day every day. He did go to a small Parks & Rec camp for a bit and those precious few hours were quite possibly the only thing that saved my sanity. He drove me crazy many days, and I would have been more than happy to send him off to Zoo Camp.
And he would be over the moon happy to go to a zoo camp. But the zoo is over an hour away. And it was just not in the budget this summer. And some days, I have felt really, really guilty about that.
Guilty that he’s not getting the opportunities other kids are getting. Guilty that he’s missing out on the whiz-bang entertainment. Guilty that he has to spend a boring old summer with boring old mom.
But if he had been at an exciting all-day camp that day, would he have ever created his Ant Smashers™? If he didn’t have time to be bored, would he discover so much about the world around him? Would he be interested in cool rocks and bugs and the toad that lives in our bushes (whom we’ve dubbed “Dennis Hopper”)?
Because they are not as exciting as manta rays and cheetahs, that’s for sure. But they are part of HIS own world, right in his backyard. If he is constantly entertained with amazing animals or cool science experiments or brain-building activities—all conceived of and supervised by adults–how will he ever appreciate the wonder that is already all around him? How will he ever learn to find that wonder on his own?
When I hear some parents say, “my kids aren’t very good at entertaining themselves,” I can’t help but wonder if have they had a chance to learn how to do that.
Please don’t misunderstand me: parenting is a tough job, and we all have to find what works for us. If it works for your family to have a summer full of exciting camps and jam-packed weekends, that is great. And I know it’s a luxury to even have the option of letting my son putter at home, because I work from home. Parents who work full-time outside the home don’t have that freedom, I know.
I’m just saying that we should not feel GUILTY about having a “boring” summer. About not signing up our kids for every extracurricular activity. We are giving them the gift of play.
And study after study shows that that’s exactly what kids needs most. Not flashcards, not spelling drills, not teaching more difficult material that is developmentally inappropriate, and certainly NOT more standardized tests.
They need free, unsupervised play, in which they create the games, they make up the rules, they decide things for themselves, they work out problems amongst themselves without adults swooping in and “fixing” everything for them. (As long as it doesn’t get violent—or, in the case of my son and his cousins, as long as there is no profuse bleeding.)
And so we see story after story of schools (many in other countries, unfortunately) extending recess, reducing homework, and increasing free play. And the results are universally positive. Play is truly the work of childhood. Play is what builds intelligence, resilience, creativity, communication skills.
My son started kindergarten the other day. And even though I know all of the facts about the importance of play, I still worry: did I do enough for him? Did I read to him enough? Should I have been drilling him on writing the ABCs all summer? Should I have sent him to more educational camps?
But lucky us: the kindergarten at our little small town elementary school is completely organized around play. They meet and exceed all of the required standards, and kids learn what they need to learn and more; but they achieve this almost entirely through play. My son has already come home with his own little invention, bursting with stories of all of his classmates’ creations. He was mad he couldn’t go to kindergarten all weekend.
He will learn to write all of his ABCs in due time. But he only gets this one shot at childhood. And I’m glad he’s been able to experience it on his own terms. Zoo camp can wait till next year.