"For children, summer should be a time to decompress, to explore at their own pace, to do absolutely nothing. To imagine, perchance to dream..." Ellen Nicholas Rathbone
According to a recent article printed by The Atlantic free play is a marvelous and vital part of summer that's often being swallowed up by a jam-packed schedule of events that's sometimes even busier than the school year. The article argues that the LESS time children spend in structured, adult-directed activities, the better it is for their self-development, ability to reach goals and their imaginations. I decided to put this theory into practice today to see if things would quickly deteriorate into a shit show.
Wednesdays I watch my niece and nephew (10 and almost 8, respectively) for 8-9 hours. Add my toddler and my 6 year old to the mix and that's a lot of unstructured play. I scrapped plans today to take them to mini golf and the park, I put away the stack of board games I was going to play with them and I put a ban on screen time OF ANY KIND. And then I sat back, added water and watched the fun.
It turns out that they were just fine without my interference. Better, actually, I'm embarrassed to admit.
The kids found an old magic set and started learning tricks to show me as I folded laundry. They built with legos and created a castle of k'nex. When I went out to water the garden, they offered to help which soon became a hilarious, beyond fun water fight. They found the other hose attachment, rustled up buckets and worked as a team to soak me and each other. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard or got such strange looks from my neighbors. Keep in mind that I didn't say "Okay, children, put on your bathing suits. We will now have a water fight." It happened organically and spontaneously. I had to put all their clothes in the dryer afterwards but so what?
We sat in the dining room and ate sandwiches and fruit for lunch. They asked me to tell them a story about the worst thing I did as a child. (A food fight I poorly chose to initiate.) They asked if we could bake cookies. I said yes and got out all the ingredients. They chose which ones to put in (sprinkles and chocolate chips yes, coconut or almonds definitely not). The played Zingo and The Memory Game. I told them I would need a half an hour to send my editor a book review that was due and the four of them went upstairs to read to themselves or one another and draw. At this moment they are playing a game called "Fort" in which they have made my entire sitting room into...well..a fort. They are delegating who is guarding what exit and doing some kind of push-ups as part of their training. "We will defend our base!" they yell at some common, invisible enemy. "I have a very bad feeling about this." I hear my son say. They are laughing. I ask them if they need anything. "More blankets" is the answer. I didn't teach them the game "Fort". I never even heard of the game "Fort." But they are so excited and having a grand ole time.
I don't mean to paint any kind of an idyllic picture of "free play" here or insist it's some kind of utopia. I'm shocked that there hasn't been one scuffle. However, I am humbled by what a ball the kids are having when they are given a safe space to freely decide, create and direct the action. This is not something they get to do all year at school.
I stress more times than I like to admit thinking of how to challenge, delight or otherwise occupy my children. I try to plan outings, play dates, visits to interesting places and neat events. I try to plan time for reading to them, movie nights, picnics on the beach. It turns out I've been wasting my time and energy here. What fools we modern day parents can be.
So today we did nothing. I took them nowhere. I organized zilch. But they are loving every second of this not-so-lazy day of summer.