As a mother, I’ve sometimes struggled with how to make the most of the summer months with my kids. Should we enroll them in camps? Just kick back and relax? Or, get a head start on academics and devote some time to reading and math? To answer some of these questions, I invited my friend and 3rd-grade teacher, Elizabeth Urbanowicz to weigh in. I think you’ll really benefit from her insights! — Julie
Parents today seem torn between two extreme parenting styles, and this tension is especially evident when it comes to summer schedules. On one end of the spectrum is the helicopter parent. This parent waits by the sidelines all day at soccer camp, armed with a water bottle, Neosporin, and clean clothes – just in case she is needed during the day. On the other end of the spectrum is the free-range parent. This parent would never enroll her child in an organized camp, but instead lets her children roam the neighborhood all day. That is, until they draw blood or catch something on fire.
Either extreme can harm children. The child of the helicopter parent expects all of life to run on schedule and struggles to navigate bumps in the road independently. But, the child of the free-range parent expects all of life to be fun and games and struggles to do tasks that require actual effort. I am not a mother, but for the past nine years have taught elementary students. And, I have observed that children seem to benefit most from a balance between structure and freedom – especially in the summer.
Make Room for Unstructured Playtime
As a kid, my siblings and I spent many summer days at the public pool – diving for rings, racing to the deep end, practicing backflips, and carrying out whatever creative idea popped into our heads. In the evenings, we would change into dry clothes and head to the backyard for a game of whiffle ball with Dad. At the time, we were just having fun and doing what came naturally. But, research now shows that these activities provided our growing brains and bodies with just what they needed.
A recent study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that unstructured playtime promotes healthy brain development. Free-play “allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.” In my years teaching third grade, I have seen first-hand the benefits of unstructured playtime. Generally, the students in my class with the most highly developed reasoning and problem-solving skills come from families that limit both screen time and extra-curricular involvement. These children may participate in sports or music lessons, but their parents intentionally carve out time for unstructured play.
I know several families who have found a healthy summer balance between structured activities and unstructured playtime. Last week, I came across a former student digging in a mound of dirt with her dad. When I asked what they were doing, she laughed and said, “We’re pretending to prospect for gold.” Another family recently built a fort in their backyard and pretended that they were exploring the wilderness. Both families have their children involved in summer camps and other organized activities. Yet they intentionally make time to let their kids be kids.
Invest in Spiritual Disciplines
The summer before my fourth grade year, my mom began requiring us to memorize Scripture. That summer, she thoughtfully chose verses that were applicable to our current season of life, or ones she knew we would need down the road. Each morning we met to recite the chosen verses and discuss their meaning. Most mornings I did not have a good attitude. I would frequently roll my eyes or pretend I couldn’t remember the passage. However, I secretly felt grateful for my mom’s intentionality. Those few minutes of spiritual nourishment each morning developed in me a hunger for God’s Word and a desire to know Him.
If you do not yet have a daily routine of family devotions, or family Scripture memorization, the summer is the perfect time to start.
If you do not yet have a daily routine of family devotions, or family Scripture memorization, the summer is the perfect time to start. Though you may be busy, you have more control over your family schedule in the summer than you will in the fall. If you are not sure where to begin, purchase a family devotional and read it out loud at mealtimes. Or do what my mom did, and choose a passage of Scripture that is applicable to your family in this current season. Read the passage with your child and practice saying it together. Including spiritual nourishment in your summer schedule is simple, yet it can have a life-long impact on your child.
Don’t Neglect Academics
“Miss Urbanowicz, there must be some mistake. My son brought home a level M addition facts sheet. But last year, Johnny ended several levels higher.” Unfortunately, this is a typical second-week-of-school conversation with parents, and there’s no mistake. Johnny used to add at a level R, but now is struggling to master level M.
Every fall, the majority of my students return to school with regressed skills in math and reading. A recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation found that the average student loses one month of learning over the summer. Yet, this need not be the case for your child. If you schedule academics into your summer routine your child can retain their current skill level and even make improvements.
Many readers may cringe at the idea of doing school in the summer. Didn’t I just encourage you to slow down and include more unstructured time into your summer schedule? Yes. However, incorporating academics into your summer does not have to be rigid or time-consuming. For several summers, I worked as a nanny for a local family and the parents asked me to include academics into our daily routine. The following are several academic activities that I found to be fun, relaxed, and easy to execute:
- Take your favorite cookie recipe and double it. Have your child multiply the fractional measurements and then convert the fractions into a mixed number (ex. 6/4 cups = 1 and 2/4 cups). This activity can be adapted to refresh multiple math skills and results in sweet treats!
- Read together as a family. Find a series of books that your whole family can appreciate. If you don’t know of a series everyone would enjoy check out the Wingfeather Saga. Though not overtly Christian, this series is written from a biblical worldview and will have your child hooked in no time.
- Incorporate writing when you plan summer activities. Give your child two or three options of fun things to do that afternoon. Then have him write a short paragraph persuading you to choose one option. If you have multiple children, make this a competition – the most persuasive paragraph wins!
Summer vacation is passing quickly. No matter your parenting style, you can find ways to intentionally include unstructured play, spiritual input, and intellectual stimulation into your child’s schedule. And, don’t forget to do the same for yourself, as well! Just like children need a balance between structure and freedom, you need a balance between giving and receiving. So, free-rangers, actually plan some nights off. They won’t happen unless you do. And helicopters, trust your older children to watch the younger ones — or hire a babysitter. Trust me, your kids can survive without you. Someday, they’ll have to.
About the Author
Elizabeth Urbanowicz teaches at Wheaton Christian Grammar School in Wheaton, IL. She has a B.A. from Gordon College and a M.S. from Northern Illinois University. She’s also a graduate of Focus on the Family’s Leadership Institute, and has studied under Ravi Zacharias and his team of apologists in the U.S. and U.K. She currently is working on an M.A. in Christian apologetics at Biola University.