By Guest Blogger Laura Simon
In one of my earliest memories, I am running across my childhood backyard, one hand grasping the sparkly baton I had saved all of my Vacation Bible School tokens to purchase. I loved that baton, with the sparkly tinsel on the inside, and the shiny, brightly-colored streamers flowing from either end. When I announced my intention to purchase it, my mom pointed out that I didn’t know what to do with a baton. “That’s not a problem,” I responded. “When I get this baton, I’m sure I’ll be able to figure it out.
And so, I was running barefoot through the grass, the sun peeking over the roof of the house, illuminating the sparkles as they trailed behind my hand. As I look back, this moment stands out as one of pure bliss. The warm summer light, the soft grass under my feet, the complete absence of any worry except for my preoccupation with learning to toss the baton in a perfect rotation and catch it again on the way down. I was smiling with my whole face. I know this because in that split second, a bee flew into my mouth. In a panic, I shut my mouth and the bee did what bees know to do when they’re threatened.
It stung me on the roof of the mouth.
So much for bliss.
I think I still remember this moment – not just because of the bee sting and the subsequent evening of pain (and ice cream) – but because the moments leading up to it capture so much of my childhood. I still remember vividly the way the sun filtered through the trees in our front yard in the morning, the smell of the tomatoes in my dad’s garden, the feel of the grass between my toes. My memories are so vivid, I think, because so much of my time was unplanned. My parents supplied an appropriate amount of toys, games, and art supplies, along with an ample lack of structure. It gave me time to slow down and absorb my surroundings. It gave me the opportunity to be creative.
It wasn’t as though we never did anything outside the home. For most of my summer childhoods, I spent several months attending swim team practice each morning. Usually there was a week of Vacation Bible School, and we frequently visited my grandparents at their home thirty minutes away. We obviously completed chores, went to the grocery store, and had occasional playdates with friends as well. But summer still stands out in my mind as a slow time of year, and that was a good thing.
I know the trend now is to schedule our children from sun-up to sundown. The prevailing belief is that unstructured time allows kids to get into trouble, that the best parents keep their kids busy. I had an acquaintance who intentionally scheduled every hour of her children’s days, from 6:30 in the morning, when they left for school, until 8:30 at night, when they got ready for bed. They played sports, took music lessons, participated in study sessions, joined youth groups, and generally existed in a whirlwind of activity. They certainly didn’t have time to get in trouble, but at what price?
My kids are still small. They can spend a whole hour watching the ants crawling in the crack between our driveway and the curb. I have to force myself not to swoop in and direct them to something else, because my brain is always racing to the next thing. I think I’d be better off if I knew how to slow down and watch ants. I want to preserve that for my kids as long as I can.
Yes, sometimes unstructured time gets a little…messy. Like the afternoon when my five-year-old came in from the backyard and asked for a cup of water. “It’s on the table,” I told him.
“No, I want to take it outside.” He had my attention.
“Why do you need water outside?”
“Because we found a worm family in the water table, and they need water to live.”
I assumed he was playing make-believe, so I told him he could have imaginary water and sent him back outside. Five minutes later, I glanced out the window to check on him and his brother, and they had pulled down their pants to pee in the water table. They’d found an alternative water source.
Say what you want, but unstructured time teaches kids to think outside the box. Incidentally, further investigation revealed that the worms were actually slugs, that the boys named each one of them, and that several slugs seemed a little scared of their benefactors. I think that’s a logical reaction when someone pees on your home. All told, my boys spent hours planning a birthday party for one of the slugs, writing letters to them, making sure they were comfortable in their surrounds, and getting thoroughly bathed when they came back into the house.
That’s the kind of summer I want my kids to have. I’m no idealist; I get that we all have jobs and commitments and lots of important things to take part in. I realize that different personality types need different amounts of down time. And while I don’t exactly enjoy cleaning mud off a child who decided to dig a swimming pool in the lot next door, I still think we have to make a way to carve out time with no expectations: an afternoon at the pool with no lessons or plans, or a morning outside with no place we have to go. The rat race will find them eventually, but hopefully not when they’re five.
Maybe I’m old-school, but I think our kids need a little bit of old-fashioned summer.