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 neighborhood.
"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 children.
"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 Byrne.
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 developmental differences.
"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 Byrne.
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 says.
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 us."
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 on."
Chicago mom of four Melanie Myatt remembers her childhood summer experiences fondly and wants her kids to have the same kinds of memories.
"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 camp.
"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 year."
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 intervention.
"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 activities?
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 children.
"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 catch-up."
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 commitments.
"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 day.
"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 experience."
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.