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May 11, 2009

Set Summer Free

-7 Summer's almost here. And even though the Chicago weather is playing hide and seek with the calendar, it's only a couple of weeks until we dip our toes into the first holiday of the season. 

When I was a kid, summer meant one thing: freedom. Freedom from school and schedules, from musts and have tos and right nows. Summer meant playing outside until dark and being able to roam as far from home as we could get, as long as we could still hear our mom call us from the front porch. When I got a little older, summer meant the freedom of riding our bikes to the park for swimming lessons and staying there all day. My mom brought us a picnic lunch and stayed until dinner, when my dad came to play and swim with us until dark.

Summer meant swimming and sprinklers and hours and hours with nothing to do. It meant the freedom to get thoroughly and completely bored. So bored that you would invent things to do. So bored that you would read books without pictures. So bored you would even play with your brother.

But for this generation of children, the freedom of summer has been sold into bondage. The hectic schedule of the school year has already sent its bounty hunters ahead to lay claim to those formerly lazy days. Whole hours and days and weeks have been enslaved by day camps and sleep-away camps, art and music and dance classes, tutoring and swimming lessons. And while I'm sure all these opportunities do provide enrichment, I can't help but think they are also stealing something important from our children.

Shortly after I got married, my 12-year-old stepson spent a week or two with us in the summer. He brought some things to do, but eventually told me he was bored. I said to him what my mother had always said to my brother and me when in that situation: "Why don't you go outside and play?" He looked at me blankly and said: "What do you mean?" Let's see, I thought, "Go outside" — that's pretty clear; "and play" — that seemed pretty straightforward, too. I remember feeling profoundly sad that he had no idea how to entertain himself, even for a brief time, on a beautiful summer day. 

By the time I started having my own children a year later, I learned that summer had turned into a world of preplanned, preprogrammed, prepaid, adult-led activities.

My mom didn't drive us all over town for play dates; we played with the kids who lived nearby. She didn't feel the need to register us for every sport and camp. We did one or two things with adults in charge, but mostly we played sandlot baseball and pickup games of Red Rover with the kids in the neighborhood. When we chose our own captains and teams, we learned leadership skills. When we agreed on the rules, we learned to the art of cooperation and team building. Believe me, I'm not romanticizing my youth — I was the last one chosen as often as not, and frequently felt bullied and left out. But I learned things from those experiences and feelings, too. 

It's true that I remember reaching a state of profound boredom during the summer, but it didn't happen for weeks and weeks. In addition to stimulating our imaginations and making us responsible for entertaining ourselves, the onset of boredom had the added benefit of actually making us look forward to school. My kids often feel like school has barely ended before it starts up again.

I love summer. I like spending time with my kids. While they have had their fair share of summer camps and activities, I have refused to surrender every minute (and every dollar) of our summer to regularly-scheduled programs. The downside of this, of course, is that even though my kids have had time to play, most of their friends have not been around.

I harbor a secret hope that things may be a little simpler in this summer of recession. I say set summer free! Let's take this opportunity to reclaim some sweet summer independence so we can all get good and bored together. But check back with me in early August. My ideas of summer freedom may feel like a life sentence by then, and I'll probably be singing the jailhouse blues.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. Susan can be found blogging year round at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Photo credit: Freedom by Phae

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