Why We're Having An Unstructured ‘Go Outside And Play!' Summer

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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When my kids returned to school after their recent spring break, they were asked to write about those 10 days off—how they spent their time and what they did.

Ummm, what did you write? I asked, cringing, as I racked my brain for what their responses may have been. Watched YouTube Kids for hours on end? Stayed in their pajamas all day and barely bathed? Ate Easter candy at 9 a.m.?

Because that’s pretty much what our spring break looked like. And what our summer will look like too.

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We will travel a bit. They will have an occasional camp sprinkled in here and there in the months of June, July, and August. But most of our summer days will look a lot like spring break did for us. Lazy. Sleeping in. Minimal personal hygiene. Snacks. No real schedule. And lots of freedom.

On any given day in the summer, my kids wake up somewhere between 6 and 9. They will eat some sort of makeshift breakfast that may include a dry cup of cereal on the couch and a piece of cheese an hour later. Around noon, after they’ve drained the iPad battery, they’ll probably change into play clothes and head outside. Then they’ll come back in. Then they’ll go outside. Then they’ll come back in.

We might hit the pool. We might not.

We might go to the library. We might not.

We could play with friends down the street and play marathon games of “hide and seek” or “the floor is lava,” only stopping to eat popsicles and watermelon slices. Or we might not.

That’s the beauty of a summer that’s mostly unscheduled, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

I know that not every family can operate this way—some parents work and need their kids in childcare. Or certain kids need more structured stimulation in order to protect the peace and harmony of the household (and Mom’s mental health). But for us, it works. And I love it.

I’m not going to lie—having occasional plans is necessary to break up the monotony and force us to comb our hair, put on real pants, and leave the house. (I’m talking about them and me.) So for this reason, I do have my kids enrolled in a few casual activities and sports that last for a few hours here and there. But if you look at our calendar, most of the summer weeks remain blank. And the activities we are signed up for are well spaced out and usually don’t begin until around 10 a.m., keeping our lazy mornings (and ability to stay up late watching Star Wars) intact.

As we return to school, however, we usually look back and see that those empty squares on the calendar didn’t stay empty. That was the day we went to the zoo, we’ll recall. And this was the day we ordered pizza with the neighbors and played flashlight tag until 9:30 at night. And that one day we wrote a play and acted it out and made you and Daddy sit through the entire thing!

By the end of August, my book-loving son will have read 50 books. My other son—a sports nut—will have played baseball and soccer until he fell asleep in a sweaty exhausted heap most nights. Stories will be written and illustrated by my daughter. Toys will be left out in the yard, only to be played with again the next day. There will be impromptu bike rides and road trips to visit family and friends. My kids will have invented ways to pass their time because they know Mommy does not provide daily entertainment.

Some days their chosen method will be excessive screen time, but other days it won’t be. Some days will be filled by creating art projects or doing puzzles or perfecting a cartwheel. Some days will be for reading Harry Potter for the 67th time. Others for swimming so hard they’ll take 4 p.m. naps.

I know I can’t give my kids an ’80s summer like I had. I mean, it’s really hard to find candy cigarettes and Tang anymore. But I can ensure that the months between May and September are free for imaginative, unstructured, unplanned childhood play. I can ensure that they have the opportunities to play in the dirt, collect lady bugs, watch movies, ride their bikes, and squirt each other with water guns for hours on end.

So even though my daughter wrote “I ate a bag of jelly beans and stayed up until 10 every night” for her writing assignment about spring break, and even though her essay about summer will probably look similar, I’m okay with that.

Before returning to the hustle and bustle of reading logs and math homework and science fairs and Mom, sign this permission slip and I need lunch money and I have a project on Pocahontas due tomorrow, I love that my kids get a break, that I get a break.

I love not having to bark at them five mornings a week to get dressed, put their shoes on, eat breakfast, and hurry up because the bus is coming. Are the days sometimes long with all three kids home with me? Absolutely. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t celebrate when they return to school and I get my house back. I mean, they are regular kids and despite loving each other, they will fight something fierce over the iPad, TV remote, game controllers, and water guns. Someone usually cries after falling off their bike, getting whacked with a stick, or stung by a bee on a daily basis.

But thankfully, because we likely had no plans that day, I slap a band-aid on that knee and send them right back outside, popsicle in hand. I might have to shout, “BE NICE TO EACH OTHER!” 27 times from the kitchen window too, but those are the days I pour a little Mommy juice for myself and invite the other moms on the street to come on over.

And the summer continues on.

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