I believe the best restorative for the jam-packed school year is the programmed but laid-back fun of summer camp.
There are parents who push their kids to hit the books all summer long—making regular progress on their summer assignments, doing enrichment work on their own, attending demanding academic summer programs. Then there are others who are content to let their kids spend the summer entirely unprogrammed which, let’s face it, means lots of screen time. In our family, we’ve taken a different route: camp—a summer of playing, swimming, art, and so much more. We don’t ask or expect our kids to focus on academics during the summer, nor would we let them loll about at home. Camp is simply too important.
My near-fanaticism about camp is partly about getting the kids outside and moving, active for many hours, bringing them home with that perfect exhaustion that comes from a day of exertion and excitement. My kids exercise their brains and expand their intellectual horizons for 10 months a year; for these two months, let the emphasis be on developing and expanding their physical and athletic skills. Many kids today—certainly mine—work hard at school, are diligent about their homework, and commit to any number of after-school and extracurricular programs. They’re busy, and often stressed. I believe the best restorative for the jam-packed school year is the programmed but laid-back fun of summer camp.
Even if we lived in a place where our kids would spend the entire summer outside and off screens, I think I’d still opt for a camp program over an entirely unstructured summer. Camp provides a safe environment for meeting new people, trying new things, acquiring new skills, and growing as a person. These are things my kids wouldn’t do if they hung out with the same crew, doing the same self-selected activities day after day.
This summer, my 11-year-old daughter is kicking it up a notch and attending sleepaway camp— four weeks away from home at the same camp my brother and I attended as kids! While she attended day camp for eight weeks every summer for the past several years, we decided together that a four-week option was the right way to start out for her first extended foray away from home.
But we are also facing a dilemma: what to do when she returns from camp? Her younger sisters will still be in day camp for several more weeks, and our attempt to find nearby short-term programs hasn’t worked out yet. So we have reluctantly agreed that she will, indeed, spend the second half of the summer unprogrammed. After the intensity of 24/7 sleepaway camp, I think this will end up being the right balance for her. But she will not spend her entire day online.
It’s not like I am entirely opposed to unstructured downtime. Even after day camp ends, there is always a few weeks before school starts. Those weeks, I expect to hear my share of “I’m bored” and begging for more screen time. As long as it’s confined to a short period, there’s value in that too, in forcing them to figure out how to make the most of their time, create their own fun, and maybe even end up welcoming school as it approaches. As with so much in life, it’s all about balance. Now if only we grown-ups could do that camp thing as well.