Yet, many parents wax nostalgic about their own childhoods, spent
gazing at cloud formations, enjoying that game of pick-up baseball or
simply swaying for hours on the homemade tire swing while channeling
So much for wistful memories. The truth is, kids haven't been set loose to meander through neighborhoods and playgrounds for quite some time.
For starters, safety is an ever-present concern.
"The world has grown," says Christina Simonds, principal of Chestnut Hill Academy in Bellevue. "Kids don't just hang out anymore. I know what I worry about with my own kids -- that there are people out there who may hurt them."
Then there's the double-career factor. These days, it's likely both parents work and find it difficult -- " if not impossible" -- to be at home throughout the summer months, says Margaret Fitzgerald, assistant head and summer camp director of The Little School in Bellevue.
And let's not forget video syndrome. In the old days, bike rides and fishing expeditions weren't competing with Xboxes and PlayStations. Today, it's often an effort convincing youngsters to give up screen time long enough to eat.
The result? Families rush to fill their children's summer days with everything from tennis and soccer to math and science to dance and drama.
Interestingly, the kids like all that scheduling, according to the research organization Public Agenda. A 2004 study, "All Work and No Play?" found that American young people believe organized activities are important to them. The youngsters surveyed -- 85 percent of them -- feel kids who participate in teams or clubs are better off than those with a lot of time to themselves.
But parents should look at programs thoughtfully. "Screen summer opportunities with care," says Deborah Duitch of the Greater Seattle YMCA. "Find something that fits your child. Some kids may want a relaxed atmosphere; others need a lot of activity."
The Y's offerings include rock climbing, art, horseback riding, drama, sports teams and swimming. The idea, Duitch explains, is to provide kids with experiences that they won't have during the year.
Other Seattle-area programs are more education-oriented. Some supplement school-year learning and offer subjects such as keyboarding, science, math or foreign language. The key to enrolling in academic programs is knowing when enough is enough: What looks like fun and enrichment to some children might look like pressure and power-programming to others. "If your child is stressing out, they are being overscheduled," Simonds says.
Some parents, she notes, use camps and summer activities to give their child a competitive leg up. "If you think a sports camp will help your child be a star soccer player, ask yourself, is it your child who wants to be the star or is it you?"
The best summer experiences are the ones that provide children with a connection to their peers, Fitzgerald says. "During the school year, they are with their friends ever day, building important relationships. When summer comes, it suddenly ends," she notes. "Relationships mean everything for young kids; it's important to keep up these contacts."
And don't underestimate the value of sheer enjoyment. "In today's world, where children are often expected to adhere to strictly imposed standards and goals, participating in summer activities that are leisurely, fun and free from pressure will renew their spirits," she says.
Or, as Simonds puts it: "If your children don't come home hot, sweaty and dirty, they're not having a good time."
Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.
Summer program tips
Here are some ideas from Margaret Fitzgerald:
- Programs for 3- to 5-year-olds should be designed so children are in relatively small groups.
- Outdoor activities should be emphasized during the summer months.
- Outdoor involvement should include opportunities for children to use their large motor muscles while moving their bodies and learning to trust their own physical abilities.
- Preschool children benefit from day camp classes that are not limited to a pre-determined theme.
- It's appropriate to allow children to choose a program with a specific focus.
- School-age children benefit the most from being in small groups where the adult/child ratio is not more than 10 or 15 children to one adult.
- Children also benefit from being involved in summer activities that allow them to engage in important peer interaction without the stress of meeting adult-imposed standards or goals.