The intellectual benefits of the real old-fashioned summer
When I was a child, things were different.
There were no screens to speak of — we had no cable TV, no video games, and no one I knew owned a computer yet.
When the summer sun dawned hot and relentless, we would pull on our shorts (cut from last winter’s jeans) and our striped Garanimals T-shirts and head outside.
That billboard I complain about would have been proud: we didn’t have video controllers clutched in our dirty little hands — it was always a frog or a turtle, a handful of crabapples, a chunk of splintery wood, or a rusty hammer.
Every summer tended to be defined by large, lengthy, all-consuming projects. Projects that took up all of our time and energy, from dawn till dusk. Projects like digging a really big hole. Or trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for pogo-sticking. Or hammering 8,000 rusty nails out of old planks of wood with an eye toward making a fort or maybe a treehouse.
We spent weeks working on deep intellectual problems like how to catch a crawdad with a broken plastic bucket and a piece of hotdog as bait. No one’s mom appeared with a Pinterest post about how to build a crawdad trap and then, once we had him, how to turn his captivity into a teaching moment about biology and our polluted waterways. We just caught him (finally), then examined him at our leisure, played with him, named him, watched him crawl around in the grass, tried to feed him bologna, and then, if we didn’t kill him with too much scientific curiosity, we put him back in the creek. And no one even knew we had him in the first place.
When I was a child, things were different. We went swimming; no one was on a swim team. We played baseball; no one was on a baseball team. We hatched plans that required stealing balls of string from every junk drawer in the neighborhood; no one came at us with a Pinterest plan and a hopeful expression.
What has changed since then?
It’s not the screens.
It’s not video games or Minecraft or cartoons or comic books.
Not just the freedom to roam around physically, but the freedom that comes from not being under the parental microscope all the time — the freedom that comes from just being a kid when no one thought what you did all day mattered that much.
The freedom to conceive a big idea (digging the world’s biggest hole in the empty lot on the corner), rally support among your peers (bring your sandbox shovels and meet me after breakfast), problem-solve (get your baby brother’s wagon to move these rocks), practice leadership and collaboration (it was my idea; if you don’t like it, go dig over there!), and experience true satisfaction with a job well done (that is a really big hole).
No one cared what we did. No one said, “Is digging in the dirt really the best use of your time?” No one said, “How can you sit in front of the fan playing Monopoly for nine hours a day, six days a week?!”
If we had Minecraft back then, we would have played it nine hours a day, the way we played Monopoly and Clue. We would have plowed the vast capacity for single-minded focus that allowed us to dig a hole visible from outer space into building the world’s most complicated Minecraft castle.
How can you give your child a good old-fashioned summer like we used to have?
It’s not about fireflies or picnics or homemade kites. It’s about freedom.
Leave them alone.
Let them be in charge of their own time.
Let them have their own ideas.
Give them big, sprawling blocks of unscheduled time. Give them whole days, whole weeks.
Let them dig into whatever interests them and do whatever they want with it.
You can pull a million cute crafts and activities off Pinterest and arrange them for your child — and end up with a kid trained to expect a steady stream of fun things to do.
You can fill your child’s schedule with a perfect balance of activities combining creativity and outdoor time and language arts — and end up with a kid who doesn’t know what it’s like to be in charge, who doesn’t know what it’s like to make something happen.
You can end up with a kid who’s happy to let someone else have all the ideas and plan all the fun.
When we keep saying “you’ve had enough of that, now go do this instead,” we’re telling kids that their interests aren’t important and their focus isn’t needed. When we fill all their time, they don’t have the chance to fill it themselves.
The best part of the old-fashioned summer isn’t how innocent and simple it is, but how much room there is for growth, for ideas, for hard work, for freedom from micromanagement. There are things you can learn in an atmosphere of freedom that you simply cannot learn in an organized environment. They aren’t always things about science or history or literature; sometimes they’re things about yourself.
The real difference between the summers of my youth and the summer of today isn’t what kids want to do, it’s how infrequently it’s even taken into consideration. Kids used to be in charge of summer; they used to be in charge of themselves. Now they’re passive recipients of someone else’s ideas, passengers in the backseat being taken somewhere to do something another person has decided they should do. Summer used to be the time when kids shook off the adult control of the school year and rose up, filthy with skinned knees, to create their own worlds. Now they seamlessly move from one adult-controlled agenda to another, from one set of classes to another, from one packed schedule to another.
If you really want to embrace the values of the old-fashioned summer, forget about the surface stuff — the yo-yos and pinwheels and bike parades — and give your kids a really radical gift: freedom.
Give it to yourself as well. Let go of the big expectations; take a deep breath and remind yourself that this summer has little to no bearing on your child’s future career prospects. Be lazy. Drink lemonade. Sit in the shade. Read a book. Cross off 90% of the things on your summer bucket list and really enjoy the remaining 10%. Eschew guilt. Summer is supposed to be about taking a break from the rest of the year, not simply switching from being pummeled by one set of expectations to being pummeled by another.
Pinwheels are nice, but empty days and low expectations are even better.