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Am I Shortchanging My Kids By Not Enrolling Them in Summer Activities?

06/16/2015 01:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016
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My sister and closest friends all have their kids enrolled in all kinds of summer camps and classes. I am loving the fact that I don't have to get my kids out the door every morning. But I feel like maybe they're missing out on opportunities for enrichment. Am I shortchanging my children by doing nothing other than hanging around the house and going to the park and things like that this summer?

Childhood is short. As parents, we are given a few years to offer our children the chance to develop the skills and resources that we hope will serve them throughout their adult lives. Some believe that to give our kids the best chance at a good life, we need to pack their young years with music and dance and chess and computer lessons to broaden their horizons and ensure them an advantage in a competitive world. I agree that to some extent, extracurricular activities can be beneficial, depending of course on the child and his or her interests and temperament.

But more and more frequently, I see children in my counseling practice who are exhausted, stressed out, and unable to sit quietly for even a few minutes without some external stimulation. (Usually involving a screen.) They are booked from morning till night during the school year with not only their regular school activities, but after school sports, music, and other activities piled on. Homework and snack time is often squeezed in during the commute to afternoon classes. By the time these kids are done with their day, all they want to do is veg out in front of the TV or computer.

Kids need space in their day to wander aimlessly, finding ways to entertain themselves in a way that doesn't involve a battery or a plug. Healthy development is fostered by climbing trees, tapping out songs on the piano, building forts or simply lying in the grass and watching the clouds go by.

I know many will argue that ours is a dog eat dog world, and that only those fortunate kids who take enrichment classes will achieve success. But perhaps we need to redefine what it means to be successful. In her landmark book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington describes the three pillars of a successful life: Wisdom, Wonder, and Giving. Our most creative entrepreneurs insist on unstructured freedom to wander in their imaginations, well apart from the confines of a highly dictated schedule.

By all means, enroll your children in activities that tickle their fancy if you like. But give yourselves the gift of unscheduled summer days. Have a picnic in the park. Find a creek to sit beside or a hill to climb. Set out the paints or the pastels. Get out the sidewalk chalk. And let your kids explore the rich world of their imaginations without suggesting ways they might entertain themselves.

Albert Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research." Do not underestimate the enrichment your children gain when left to do what children are born to do--wander the world in wonder, and revel in its delights.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

To learn more about her online parenting courses and support, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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