The Unscheduled Summer: A Slice of Childhood Freedom or a Parenting Disaster?

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 

Spring break is barely over, but my mind is already on summer. And with the last day of school less than two months away, my thoughts and conversations have turned to summer plans.

My family is fortunate to live in a community that offers a wide array of diverse, interesting, and affordable summer activities, everything from swimming lessons and cooking classes to ballet and lacrosse teams. And in years past, as soon as the spring/summer program guide arrived on my doorstep, I would spend hours scouring the book, highlighting possible options, dog-earing pages, texting the parents of my kids’ friends to see what they were signing up for, and coordinating various camps, classes, and sports activities for my two sons. I would have written a reminder on the calendar with the day and time that registration opened. I would have made sure I was in front of the computer at said time. I would have racked up hundreds (thousands?) of dollars in summer activities ranging from swimming lessons to art camp to flag football.

But this year, the program guide has been largely untouched since it arrived more than two months ago. Occasionally, I have paged through the book and considered a few options, but each time I put the book back in the cupboard without deciding on anything.

With the exception of a brief extension class offered through my son’s school and spring baseball, I have been unable to pull the trigger on any summer activities. I know that these camps and classes fill up fast, and with each day that goes by, I am increasing the likelihood that nothing will be open and we will spend our daytime hours during July and August without anywhere to go or anywhere to be – which is perhaps what I really want after all.

At first, the thought of an unscheduled summer – even a somewhat unscheduled summer – sounded a little scary to me. For the past five years, summer camps and classes have been a great way to keep my kids active, give me a little break, and help them make new friends. As a work-at-home mom, I have relied on coordinated activities to guarantee a few hours of uninterrupted work time during the summer. And I worried whether my kids (and I?) would be bored with two months of largely unscheduled time.

But my fears were quickly and heavily outweighed by a profound sense of relief, freedom, and excitement. We can take road trips and go to the beach and invite friends over without worrying about the pre-scheduled classes or camps that might get in the way. Armed with a pool pass, swimming lessons can happen anytime and anywhere. And a little boredom might be a good thing for all of us, spurring on new adventures, sparking outside-the-box ideas, and leading to the invention of new activities.

I am well aware our family is fortunate to have the choice of how we spend our summer in the first place, and I don’t want to squander it away with self-imposed obligations and the nagging list of shoulds. Now that my boys are 5 and 8 years old, we are in the sweet spot of childhood and of parenting. They are old enough to play with friends and on their own without requiring constant adult supervision, yet they are young enough that they still delight in summer joys like catching fireflies and playing capture the flag with neighborhood friends. Sports are informal twice-a-week endeavors, not daily practices with out-of-town competitions. Soon enough their days will be filled with extracurricular activities and summer jobs; why rush into the busyness before it’s necessary?

And so my husband and I agreed: fewer activities, more freedom. When I talked to the boys about our summer plan, I was a little worried that they would argue with me, that they would beg to take this camp or that class, but my suggestion was met, for the most part, with enthusiasm (if not a few questions). I told them that after their school extension class was finished at the end of June, the only scheduled activity would be one sports team for each of them – baseball for my older son, tee ball for my younger son, both of which are only two nights a week. I told them that our days would be completely open to go to the lake, invite friends over, or go to the pool. I told them we each would have a journal to write about our summer adventures. And I told them that while it is OK to feel bored, if they complain about it and come looking to me to fill their time, they might not like what I come up with (hint: folding laundry and picking up dog poop in the backyard are good cures for a case of boredom).

I’m still not exactly sure how our unscheduled Summer of Whatever will play out and what our days will look like. It will likely involve a lot more getting on each other’s nerves than I would like, and frequent “time outs” for all of us. But I also hope that it opens up time for bike rides and nature walks and impromptu trips to visit out-of-town family and friends. I hope that we replace the sense of obligation that permeates the school year with a sense of possibility, if only for a couple of months. I hope that it teaches all of us – not least of all, me – to slow down a little bit and remember that the world is what we make of it, not necessarily what it dishes up to us and provides for us.

I am looking at this summer as an experiment of sorts, and I wonder: Will this be the summer that we expand and grow, create and reinvent ourselves? Or will this be the summer I realize that, as much as I would like to be spontaneous and unstructured, in reality our family requires routine and predictability?

And, perhaps more importantly, I wonder how long will it take for me to lose my mind, take up day drinking, and dig through the garbage to find my tossed-aside program guide in search of one class – basket weaving, croquet, anything! – that is still open so I can have just a few moments of peace?

I guess we will soon find out.

Related post: 10 Ways To Give Your Kid A 1970’s Kind Of Summer

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