By our count, there are exactly 95 days of summer, and
we've got a way to fill every one of them (plus a few extra). From
10 animal adventures to the 10 hottest concert tickets in town,
you'll make boredom a thing of the past (or at least the
This summer, Chicago area parents can sign their
kids up for literally thousands of camps, classes and activities.
But should they?
"For lots of kids, summer is just an extension of their
structured, school-year routines. And that means that they are
missing out on some of the opportunities that the summer break has
to offer," says Anne Byrne, a licensed clinical social worker in
private practice and a counselor at St. Clements and the Alphonsus
Academy and Center for the Arts in Chicago's Lakeview
"Much of what we see today with over-programmed kids is
driven by the realities of our hectic lives," she says.
Some parents don't want to have kids hanging around the
house and others need structured activities because they are
working, she says.
"When I was a kid, I would never have even thought to ask
my parents for ideas on what to play or say, 'Mom, I am bored.' In
contrast, many modern parents schedule their kid's entire day,
moving from one activity to another," Byrne says.
This "go, go, go" schedule has very real consequences for
"Kids absolutely burn out from being overly
scheduled-during the school year and with summer activities such as
camps," she says.
Despite the fact that many parents loathe the "b word,"
boredom actually is a good thing for kids.
"We have to give kids enough time to hang out and start to
have that desire to create things or take on something that they
normally wouldn't take on. It takes time for kids to relax and come
up with the creative piece and parents have to be prepared for the
backyard or basement to get messy in the process," says
Structured activities simply don't create the same sorts
of creative opportunities. Because many kids are spending less time
in unstructured play, early childhood specialists notice
"We are finding that many kids have an inability to
entertain themselves. This dynamic affects not only their creative
development, but other developmental areas, as well. For example,
kids today don't hang out on the backyard jungle gym for hours on
end, using different muscles in their bodies. We are seeing a
difference in fine and gross motor skill development," says
Erin Anderson, a registered and licensed pediatric
occupational therapist, says that when it comes to scheduling
activities for young kids, "less is always more."
Parents need to think about it as free-choice time versus
boredom. By giving kids some free time, such as a playdate with
friends at the park versus a structured class, "they get the
opportunity to work on their executive functioning skills," say
Anderson. "They can plan their activities, organize themselves,
negotiate taking turns, problem-solve, and learn how to manage
their time. When kids reach second or third grade, we often find
that they are missing these essential life skills."
Tight schedules also lead to a lack of development in some
less obvious areas.
"Oftentimes parents are running out of the house in a rush
and kids don't even get the chance to tie their own shoes or
struggle with the buttons or zippers on their jackets," Anderson
says. "We don't allow them the time they need to explore
multi-sensory materials in their own environments because we are so
busy rushing from one activity to the next."
In addition, unstructured playtime allows kids the chance
to work on their social skills and naturally gravitate toward other
kids with similar interests. Kids need time to develop these
pivotal life skills and denying them these opportunities can lead
to "anxiety, stress and lack of confidence," Anderson
Despite the growing number of camps, classes and other
structured activities available each summer, many families are
embracing a more laid-back summer experience.
Leah Chibe, a mother of three in Chicago's Beverly
neighborhood, says she strongly believes in taking an unstructured
approach to summer.
"Other than a Chicago Park District camp for my
4-year-old, I am not planning anything official-just lots of
playing," she says. "The biggest consideration is ensuring that we
won't be stressed about our schedules, so I tend to underschedule
Although she is confident that her "go-with-the-flow"
attitude is the right thing for her family, Chibe acknowledges
that, "I do still get a pang of self-doubt when I see some people
who are doing ballet plus baseball plus hockey plus art and so
Chicago mom of four Melanie Myatt remembers her childhood
summer experiences fondly and wants her kids to have the same kinds
"When I was a kid, we would just play outside with the
neighborhood gang. It was all pretty laid back, but I remember
having tons of fun," says Myatt.
Myatt looked into summer programming options in her
neighborhood, but decided not to sign her kids up for summer
"It was going to be too expensive to sign everyone up,"
she says. "Plus, I really prefer to have relaxed mornings when the
kids can hang out in their pajamas. I didn't want to have to follow
the same morning routine that we've done all school
Myatt plans to schedule one activity a day, such as a trip
to the library or beach. But she says most of the time, her kids
figure out something fun to do on their own without too much
"These times allow for creative thinking in a way that
structured activities and school do not," she says.
So what's a parent to do? How can families strike the
right balance between unstructured downtime and enrichment
Byrne advises parents to begin their planning by setting a
summer activities budget.
"Summer activities can be a huge expense for families over
the course of three months. Give kids some options within the
budget range," she says.
The next step is determining the needs of individual
"Look at what needs to happen academically first," Byrne
says. "If your kid needs some remediation over the summer, make
that the priority. These three months can be used for some
Anderson adds that each kid is different.
"There are some kids who can handle four activities a week
and others who max out at two," she says.
She advises choosing two weekly activities to start with
and then evaluating how your child is handling those
"Really look at things like sleep, eating and mood to help
you track whether or not it is too much," says Anderson.
No matter how busy family schedules get (during the school
year or summer break), Anderson says parents can start small by
devoting just nine minutes to creative free play every
"Put down your phone or Blackberry and devote your total
attention to your kid," says Anderson. "I call it the '9-1-1 of
play.' Choose one toy and have quality one-on-one interaction for
nine minutes each day. You will both get so much out of the
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.
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