Are you feeling overwhelmed about what to do with your child this summer? It’s a common misconception in today’s world that we have to plan the best activities for our children all summer long. But honestly, taking a relaxed approach to the summer and seeing what unfolds may lead to a much more enjoyable time for all. Here are some tips to help you get there.
Provide your child time for unstructured play! Children have lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore and resolve conflicts on their own. They are locked into organized, supervised activities, when what they need is freedom. Unstructured play is open-ended, often creative and improvised. Most creative play takes place outside of direct adult supervision and has no specific learning objectives. It involves exploring, building, pretending – really whatever and wherever their imagination takes them. This type of play supports the development of intellectual and cognitive growth, emotional intelligence, initiative, confidence, and problems solving skills. It gives children a sense of freedom and control, allowing them to develop self-discipline. They learn about themselves – what they like and don’t like – and they are able to make mistakes without feeling the pressure of failure.
Play is training for adulthood. Ideally, with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork. They also learn that they can collectively remake the rules to suit their needs. Without adults intervening, the kids have to do all the problem solving for themselves, from deciding what game to play to making sure the teams are roughly equal. When there’s an argument they have to resolve it themselves. To get back to having fun, they first have to come up with a solution, so they do. This teaches them that they can disagree, hash it out, and move on. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives.
Explore! Travel! For the cost of the latest iPhone, tablet, or gaming system you could easily take a trip someplace new. This could be locally or someplace a short drive or plane ride away. Find new places to visit near you – if you really take the time to do some research, you might be amazed at how many interesting places are in our own backyard.
Spend time outside. The outdoors provides opportunities that lead to exploration and creation due to its many movable parts (sticks, rocks, leaves, dirt, etc.) Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder not to be a medical diagnosis, but rather to serve as a description of the human costs of alienation from the natural world. He claims that the causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen. Human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems. Lack of time in nature is linked to rising rates of depression, ADHD, obesity and other health conditions. Humans are hard-wired genetically for an affiliation with the natural world and they suffer when they are deprived. Spending time in nature has a wide range of benefits for both physical and mental health. When an individual spends time in nature, the brain relaxes, entering a state of contemplation that is restorative and refreshing. Research actually proves that hiking changes our brain, decreasing negative thoughts!
Put away the electronics! Unplug your devices and remove screens from the bedroom. The ‘blue’ light from screens is linked to poor sleep and even depression, so turn those off at least two hours prior to bedtime. Spend time being active – have your child build with Legos rather than Minecraft, read actual books instead of using a tablet, and spend time in nature or playing sports as opposed to watching tv. Set tech free times and zones for the entire family (including parents). Help your children learn how to balance their time – they are not yet equipped to take the digital world in moderation or to make the right choices with it on their own. Parents need to be their guide (and an example). Remind them access to these types of technology is a privilege, not a right. Set some ground rules that are based on family values, parent/child communication and individual personalities. Discuss them with your children. It is always easier to give them more privileges than take them away. Boundaries must be set for kids until they are able to gain, through experience, the tools they need to limit their own usage. Create a family media plan or contract and stick to it!
Spend time together. Children close their ears to advice but open their eyes to example. Even babies watch their parents and tune into their distraction. Competing for attention with parental devices or other obligations undermines healthy development and a secure sense of self. Be emotionally available for your children and make family time a priority – eat together, cook together, etc. Collectively write down a list of everything they might enjoy. If they say they are bored have them go look at that list. Suggest other activities, such as games, puzzles, or going outside or for a walk. Learn new games together, explore new places. Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate!
Allow them to take risks! This is a scary one to many parents, but when parents curtail their kids’ independence, they are denying themselves the grown-up joy of seeing them do something smart, brave, or kind. When we don’t let our children do anything on their own we don’t get to see just how competent they can be – and isn’t that, ultimately, the greatest reward of parenting? Our culture has taken away the opportunities kids need to become successful adults. In treating them as fragile, society actually makes them so. Children today are safer and smarter than many give them credit for. The belief that anytime kids are doing anything on their own they are automatically in danger is wrong. Nothing we do – no toys, quality time, or special sports training – can compensate for the freedom we take away. Taking risks helps children learn the value of perseverance – they most likely won’t execute a task perfectly the first time but knowing that their parent’s think they are capable will encourage them to keep trying. Kids learn by doing and making mistakes – prepare a child for the path, not the path for the child as the saying goes. The cost of shielding kids from risk goes beyond the physical. We need to provide them the opportunity to take risks, be brave and experience life. We can’t shield them from discomfort and take care of problems for them – they need to develop essential life skills so that they don’t become dependent on authority figures to solve their problems.
Follow their interests. ‘Follow the child’ as Maria Montessori would say. Trust that each child is on his or her own internal developmental timeline, that he is doing something for a reason. Following the child means remembering that each child is unique and has his own individual needs, passions, and gifts, and he should be taught and guided accordingly. Remembering to follow your child can help you see him in a different way and work with him instead of against him. If children are specifically built to adapt and innovate, then it’s counterproductive to over-schedule their time and determine their interests. Trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating. Independence also invites the child to think of new ways of solving problems, which promotes the development of creativity. Research shows that parents and teachers who encourage children to accomplish tasks by themselves are helping them develop a strong self-identity, a resiliency to setbacks and a higher level of creativity.So, let your children get dirty this summer. Let them go barefoot and play with sticks. Give them the opportunity to soak up the sun and fresh air. Spend time with them! By allowing them to be a part of planning their summer we are giving them the world and allowing them to learn valuable lessons that can’t be found in any textbook. Don’t be afraid to let them take risks. The rewards are worth it.
Have a great summer!
Carol Martorano, M.Ed., has been working in Montessori for over 20 years as both a teacher and administrator. She is the parent of two teenagers who attended Montessori through the elementary years and is currently the Head of School at the Montessori School of Long Grove, in northwest suburban Chicago. She has her Montessori credentials in Elementary I and II, as well as Administration. She earned her Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and sits on the board of the Association of Illinois Montessori Schools.