If you’re like many parents, your child’s summer may already be booked up with “enriching activities.”  Rigorous math or computer camps, intense sports camps, doubling up on dance and gymnastics, or an ambitious summer reading list. But when will your child have time to just … play? 

It’s too bad that the old-fashioned notion of summer as endless free time – to climb trees, chase fireflies, build a fort in the woods, maybe set up a lemonade stand – has fallen by the wayside. 

Let’s face it, summers aren’t what they used to be. 

Making the most of an unstructured summer can be difficult for many families today, especially working families. It presents scheduling challenges – children have a lot of free time on their hands, and it can be overwhelming to figure out how to manage their open schedule in addition to your unchanged, busy one.


This is what kids need; they need it far more than they need a high-priced summer camp or some other program aimed at cramming a little bit more learning into their exhausted brains.


During the school year, your child’s entire day is structured. This can leave you feeling the need to schedule every minute of the summer as well – quickly becoming overwhelmed by both the cost and logistics of trying to do so.

Encouraging your child to try new activities is important, but it is more important to have a consistent routine that’s realistic to maintain. Fitting unstructured downtime into each day is essential to both you and your child’s happiness and well-being, so resist the urge to over-schedule their summer!


If you’re ready to change your high-pressure, overscheduling ways, summer is the perfect time to get started, and here’s how! 


1. YOU have to buy into the belief that play is important. 

Unfortunately, this is tough for many parents. We’re steeped in a culture that elevates work and downplays play. When we see our daughter dancing around the living room we think, She’s so talented! She needs dance lessons! But the minute you do this, it stops being play.

Play is serious business. It is the work of childhood. It’s a classroom in which children develop a whole set of skills that really matter in life. It is the space in which they process the happenings of their inner worlds.

Now you may be asking yourself: How could playing be more important than a structured lesson? Well, when children engage in unstructured play, day-dreaming, risk-taking and independent discovery, they are actually aiding the development of their own executive functioning – cognitive skills such as self-regulation, organization, planning and switching between tasks. Executive functioning has long been identified as one of the key skills for academic and life success. Now if this hasn’t managed to convince you, read on to point #2 below.


2. Think back to your own best memories from childhood. 

They won’t be the classes or the lessons but the time you were allowed to just be. It’s important to allow your kids this right as well. Children deserve a childhood filled with beautiful memories. 

We need to learn what we’re good at and not good at. What we like and don’t like, on our own rather than being told by parents, coaches, and instructors. Our sense of self must be shaped internally, not externally. Boredom and loose structure lead to self discovery and thus to self mastery.

It’s why children need plenty of time not devoted to any structured activity at all. In every episode of unstructured, unguided play, a child learns more and more about themselves.  It is this sense of self that provides a home base, a place to retreat to, throughout life.


3. Try to say ‘yes’ more often than usual.

Relaxing the rules and routines just a bit during the summer months can help reduce stress for the entire family. So go ahead – say ‘yes’ to that second Popsicle every once in a while; to staying up late AGAIN; to squirt gun and water balloon fights after work!

Let the pool or sprinkler substitute for a bath every now and then. The same kid who resists a bath will probably be delighted to spend a few minutes goofing around in the sprinkler or pool before bedtime! 


4. Get back in touch with your own playfulness. 

Maybe you haven’t really had fun in a long time. Decide this is the summer you’re going to change that. Get in the pool with your kid. Let your kids soak you every now and then! Go camping. Dust off your bicycle and go for a spin. When your child sees you playing, they will be more willing to play, too.


5. Explain to your kids that you’re going to “back off” a bit this summer. 

Ask them which activities they want to keep … and which they want to toss. 

Tell them you’re worried that they’re too busy to really have any fun and that you want to help them change that. Then, ask them to help you create a summer “bucket list.” What would they really like to do this summer?

Don’t be surprised if they don’t know how to answer that question. If they’ve been overbooked and overscheduled all their lives, they’re not used to thinking this way. Part of the joy of this summer will be in seeing their sense of play emerge.


6. Pencil in some low-key friends and family time. 

This may mean saying no to some invitations. Or it may mean setting aside one evening as family night. Just make sure kids have substantial blocks of time to just hang out with you or with friends.  The point is to make sure there is plenty of free time available for the kids to just be kids. 

If you don’t set aside the time, and guard it with your life, you’ll just end up keeping your usual chaotic schedule by default.


7. Be aware that loafing and hanging out are more valuable than you think. 

The next time you’re tempted to tell your kid, “Why don’t you go do something!” rethink your belief that being busy is always better. Even if it doesn’t look like kids are doing much, a lot of learning may be going on. Never underestimate the value of lying in the grass looking at the sky, or sitting on the sidewalk sharing a stick of gum with a friend.


More than anything, your child needs a loving connection with you. 


So, whether it’s running through the sprinkler together or making s’mores, do at least one thing each day to connect and have fun. This summer, I challenge you to make time for some loose and unstructured time – your kids will thank you and so will your future self!