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Tips for a Successful Free Range Summer

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KIDS PLAYING SUMMER
Zurijeta via Getty Images

Does the thought of summer break bring excitement to you, or dread? Many parents these days incorrectly believe they need to fill their child's every waking moment with camps, classes, and structured activities. I'm here to tell you: it's okay to relax and allow unstructured time for your children this summer. In fact, in my experience as an educator, researcher, and parenting expert, you can do your children a world of good by giving them more of a "free range" summer -- one in which there are more relaxed schedules -- versus an over-programmed one.

Why Parents Over-Schedule Their Kids

Before looking at some ways to have a successful, unstructured summer, it helps to investigate why you may be attempting to over-schedule your children. Many parents project onto their children their own wants and needs from their family of origin. Other parents have to work and need a safe place for their children while they are away. And then, there is the competition of social pressure on parents who want the best for their children.

As a result, parents have taken this extra-curricular approach to an over-curricular extreme. Ironically, all of this over-programming stresses your children. Children display the same stress-related health problems that their over-stressed parents do, except that they don't have those adult coping skills. Also, an over-stressed child is more emotional, and therefore biologically involved in a fight-or-flight system. Thus cortisol is over-produced, which then floods your child's brain and alters its' capacity to remember, learn, and think critically. And so, your child may be looking down a tunnel in which depression becomes a real option.

Summer time is a great anecdote to this kind of stress. It is a time for bonding, freedom, and play. You may not know it, but play actually enhances learning. Learning is not simply coordinated instruction. Humans, like all other primates, are hard-wired to learn and to learn constantly, from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Interestingly enough, high levels of learning are reached through play, because it is in this relaxed and creative state that many "ah ha" moments and leaps in learning occur.

You can support your child's development by securely bonding with him or her and creating a safe, relaxed, and rich environment, in which they can explore, imagine, and fantasize. For example, when children play with dolls or stuffed animals, they are imitating adult behavior, they are problem solving, learning how to negotiate, and communicate. In a sense, a safe and rich environment in which free range play can occur offers your children the opportunity to test themselves against their environment and to follow the threads of their thoughts and ideas to their conclusions. Moreover, because it is unstructured and free form, play is a wonderful de-stressor.

This being said, there is a place for moderation in all things, including extra-curricular activities. Balance is the key to benefit. During the summer, children should have a chance for a time out, so they can take time in.

Some ideas for relaxing summer fun:

1. Use my empathic process to discuss as a family the summer options that will fit parents' schedules and children's needs. If parents can't take any vacation time, perhaps they can let children have some time with grandma and grandpa, even a babysitter, so that they don't have to go to a structured environment.

2. Apprise yourself of the free and fun activities that are available in your town or city. For example, the beach, tennis courts, picnic spots, country fairs, parks, free outdoor movies, camping, museums, open air theaters, arts and crafts, scrapbooks, fishing, hiking, or biking. The only criteria is to have fun in a safe environment.

3. Don't over-program your schedule. Always leave room for flexibility and spontaneity. Sometimes it's fun just to stay home. Sitting on the porch and reading, journaling, sculpting, painting, playing board games, dancing, singing, and writing music, can only happen during down time. Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg used to spend their summers making movies with video cameras, and look where it got them.

Creative play cannot be overstated. The most important thing to remember about a free-range summer is to relax and enjoy it. The essential thing that children really want is bonding time with their parents. So, cooking, baking, taking turns reading, and just being together can offer the most warm experiences... and these translate not just to a fun summer, but a lifelong memory of a fun summer with Mom and Dad.