Summer! Say the word and I still feel the tingling sense of anticipation I used to feel when looking ahead to that long stretch of lazy, lingering days, free of responsibility and rife with possibility.
But what does summer mean for kids these days? Is it a time to hunt for insects, master handstands, jump off swings, conquer trees, and explore nooks and crannies?
Or, is it a time to practice drills in soccer camp?
It is no secret that today’s kids are over-scheduled, over-tested and over-stimulated. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the average American child spends over seven hours in front of a screen each day, and only four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play. Meanwhile, time spent in structured sports has doubled and time spent on homework has increased by 50 percent.
Summer should be a time to buck the trend, but instead kids are still getting rushed from one scheduled activity to the next, honing soccer and math skills while failing to climb a single tree and much of the free time they do have is spent in front of a screen.
Unstructured outdoor play is crucial to our children’s development, challenging, exercising, and opening their minds in new ways. Unlike organized sports, free play promotes creativity and the thrill of discovery. Unlike math problems, it enhances physical health. Unlike Angry Birds, it hones real-life social skills.
Let me be clear: I have nothing against sports or academics, nor do I roundly condemn screens. The problem is that the balance is off. We need to tip the scales.
But how can busy working parents make sure their kids are getting enough time and space for free play during the week? How can mom send her kids out to go play for the afternoon if there are no other kids to play with? In the midst of soccer games and laundry, how can families set aside time to play together on the weekends?
In our increasingly play-deprived society, the answers to these questions are not as simple as one might hope. But here are three ideas to get you started:
1. Get motivated to make time for family play this summer by joining the 2012 Playground Challenge, hosted by the national nonprofit KaBOOM!. The three top Challengers will win a trip for two to DC and all participants can win great prizes each week. Learn more and sign up here.
2. If you’re having a hard time finding an affordable summer camp that gives your kids a break from the pressures of school, why not start your own? Even if you work full-time, getting a neighborhood camp up and running is not nearly as daunting as it may sound. Here are six tips from two neighbors who have done exactly that.
3. Close a street. Let kids play. By petitioning your town to close your street to cars at a regularly scheduled time, your community gets an “instant playground,” even if it lacks swings and monkey bars. “Play streets” not only get kids and families moving, but create a regular time for neighbors to convene and socialize. Get inspired by this video.
Summer is calling. Now go play!
Photo by stevendepolo (cc).