Many parents and educators are concerned that children will not retain knowledge and skills over the summer in today’s highly academic and competitive society.  This often leads to signing children up for loads of classes, camps and activities to fill their every summertime hour. Parents will seek, and teachers will sometimes recommend: workbooks, apps, games, toys, technology and other ways for children to keep up on learning and not fall behind during the summer months.

Children in today’s society have been found to be more stressed, depressed, and anxious than ever before.  They are also more connected to media and devices than ever before, and involved in more activities and extracurricular classes than ever before.  It is evident that all of our over-programming and scheduling of children’s lives isn’t the answer to making children well-rounded, healthy and happy members of society.

Whatever happened to the summer vacation of yore?  Has childhood play and exploration in nature and neighborhoods become an anomaly instead of the norm that it once was?  This seems to be the case, and it is a sad reality for our children’s mental health and their ability to learn and retain knowledge and skills.  A stressed child is not a child who learns and retains. An unhappy child does not have the best relationships and has a harder time contributing to making our world a better place.

My growing-up experience

I was brought up in northern lower Michigan, with a lake out my front door and forest out my back door.  Yes, I would spend some time at camps during the summer, and I would continue to read and write and draw because I enjoyed those things.  But I would spend the majority of my summer vacation learning through play and nature: building forts in the woods with friends, putting on plays, making tea parties and potions for dolls in a pine tree haven, digging in a huge beach sandbox, and building sand castles and moats. I enjoyed swimming in the lake and playing games like “Marco Polo,” riding bikes to the local state park, counting out change to buy candy at the park store, figuring out if we had time to walk the quarter mile to a friend’s house to ask them if they could come over before dinner was ready, going into town to the library to check out books to read in the apple tree. I would follow animals in the woods to see how they lived and what they ate or get the neighborhood kids together for a kickball game or a card game…the opportunities and possibilities for learning, responsibility, social-emotional development, language development, negotiation, self regulation, scientific exploration, physical development, cognitive development etc, etc… were numerous and endless.

My kids’ experience 

When I moved down to Southeast Michigan from Mid-Michigan (where I started my family) with my children at the ages of six and three, I needed to return to work.  I was concerned that I would not be able to offer my children the same opportunities that I had growing up to learn from nature, play and relationships, especially in a time where we are more concerned about our children’s safety on their own out in the world.  But I worked to be able to have summers off with them when they were younger. I found ways for them to have many of the same types of situations: neighborhood friendships, parks nearby, trips to State of Michigan recreation areas around us, day camps and camping, and even just general exploration of our town around us and our own backyard, gardening, walking to our neighborhood store and more.   There were many days when we would pack a lunch, gather a couple of friends, and go to a Metropark to spend the day hiking and identifying wildflowers and birds, or playing in a stream that led to the Huron River, making dams with rocks and observing frogs and crayfish. It wasn’t exactly like my northern Michigan summers, but very close to what I had experienced.

Guess what?  I didn’t fall behind in academic learning over the summer as a child.  My own children also did not have many problems when they went back to school in the autumn.  Sure, we had to get used to school kinds of learning and routines again, and get back into the swing of things.  But our summer experiences were so rich. They weren’t the “lazy days” that are often the stereotypical depiction of summer because there was no typical reading writing and ‘rithmetic study and worksheets going on.  We were truly expanding and developing our minds in beneficial ways. Beneficial for the rest of our lives.

Think about this

Children from infancy up through middle school learn so much from relationships, play, and exploration in nature.  Even high schoolers, college students, and adults benefit greatly from these things! We need to give them, and ourselves, these opportunities. Exercise your parental boundary-making abilities and put limits on electronic device usage and media during the summer (and the rest of the year too if you can) for your children and yourself.  If you are unable to have the time off with your children because you need or want to work, find day camps (at New Morning School, for example) or sleep-away camps that put a priority on creativity and exploration.  Even if you aren’t working outside the home and don’t have the need for care for your children, high-quality day camps are a great experience for children. Combine these with rich experiences that you offer your children and they are going to have a mind-expanding and developmentally valuable summer! They will also have better mental health, which is of utmost importance. The memories of fun, friendship and family will stick with them for the rest of their lifetimes, and that is the basis for the good life that we all want for our children.

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Trisha Miller is a preschool teacher at New Morning School, Plymouth, MI. She can be reached at trisha@newmorningschool.com.