A few weeks ago, I looked out the kitchen window into our scruffy backyard, littered with toys and bicycles. And I saw my 5-year-old son, deeply immersed in his endeavor, taping rectangles of cardboard to his feet with miles and miles of masking tape. (I long ago gave up on keeping him from the tape—and the scissors, despite more than one hair-cutting incident.)
He explained to me that he was making "Ant Smashers." He had a snack sitting on the patio, and the Ant Smashers™ allowed him to protect his picnic from the encroaching insect population. (Yes, it is rather violent, but anybody who has a boy like mine understands that some level of violence just comes with the territory.)
He had requested that Daddy cut these same cardboard rectangles earlier in the day to be wings for his cardboard box airplane. Completely his design and his idea. And it really did look like an airplane, one just his size.
As he demonstrated the Ant Smashers™ for me, I wondered: if he had been in expensive camps and programs all summer, would he have had the chance to create them?
Because our summer has been pretty boring.
Mostly he putters around the yard, plays with the hose, finds toads and bugs and locust shells and cool rocks, shimmys up the door frames, attempts to dismantle the house, and, admittedly, has way too much screen time.
In other words, the same kind of summers I had as a kid.
Some days, I have felt really, really guilty about that.
Guilty that he's not getting the opportunities other kids are getting.
Guilty that he's missing out on whiz-bang entertainment.
Guilty that he has to spend a boring old summer with boring old mom.
But if he had been doing something else, would he have ever created his Ant Smashers™? If he didn't have time to be bored, would he discover so much about the world around him? Would he be interested in cool rocks and bugs and the toad that lives in our bushes (whom we've dubbed "Dennis Hopper")?
They are not as exciting as manta rays and cheetahs, but they are part of HIS own world, right in his backyard. If he is constantly entertained with amazing animals or cool science experiments or brain-building activities—all conceived of and supervised by adults—how will he ever appreciate the wonder that is already all around him? How will he ever learn to find that wonder on his own?
When I hear some parents say, "my kids aren't very good at entertaining themselves," I can't help but wonder if have they had a chance to learn how to do that.
Please don't misunderstand me: parenting is a tough job, and we all have to find what works for us. And I know it's a luxury to even have the option of letting my son putter at home because I work from home. Parents who work full-time outside the home don't have that freedom, I know.
I'm just saying that we should not feel GUILTY about having a "boring" summer. We are giving them the gift of play.
And study after study shows that that's exactly what kids need most. Not flash cards, not spelling drills, not teaching more difficult material that is developmentally inappropriate, and certainly NOT more standardized tests.
They need free, unsupervised play, in which they create the games, they make up the rules, they decide things for themselves, they work out problems amongst themselves without adults swooping in and "fixing" everything for them. (As long as it doesn't get violent—or, in the case of my son and his cousins, as long as there is no profuse bleeding.)
Play is truly the work of childhood. Play is what builds intelligence, resilience, creativity, communication skills.
[Originally posted on The Wild Word. It has been edited.]
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