If you think back to summertime when you were a kid, what are your favorite memories? Memories of day camp and birthday parties are likely among them, but the ones that are deep within you, formative even, are likely those you spent carefree.
More now than even 20 years ago, kids have busy lives. The importance of sports and clubs has been heightened. Most children come from 2-income families, making it necessary for students to have before and after care during the school year as well as summertime.
And while these programs and experiences are amazing, there is something to be said for unstructured time for kids.
According to clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins, Katie Davis, “[f]ree time allows children to participate in activities that have no clear structure or rules, and so it is crucial for social, emotional, and cognitive development. During free time, children use parts of the brain that are required for imagination, introspection, and daydreaming. They develop important social skills, like communication, flexibility, cooperation, negotiation, and taking turns. They try out new activities and roles, which fosters creativity. They also learn to manage conflict, which helps to reduce anxiety and stress"
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder agree that children need unstructured time. Here they looked at executive functioning skills, those skills that help people make decisions, solve problems and accomplish goals. These researchers found "[t]he more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning."
Take a look at your schedule this summer, and see where you can unschedule your children. This could be backyard or neighborhood play before or after dinner, time alone in their room, or weekend time with friends or siblings. The idea is to not give the children any ideas on what to do but rather let them figure out what they want to do, how they want to do and for how long.
During unstructured child-led time, kids are free to explore their creative side. They learn how to assert and advocate for themselves. They learn cooperation and the natural consequences of their actions and words.
This is valuable but is also difficult. Kids might claim to be bored or not know what to do. Don’t be tempted to solve this for them too quickly. It takes work to be creative and self-entertaining. And like anything new it takes practice.
You do not have to go and cancel summer camps and art classes the kids are signed up for. These are incredibly important as well. But a mixture of structured and unstructured time is sure to make your child well rounded and ready for the world.