I waited for my daughter in the school’s courtyard on her last day of class, chatting with the other moms about summer plans. Our family’s plans included little more than long, lazy days at the beach and some ballet lessons.
“What else?” one mom asked expectantly.
“That’s it,” I responded, garnering a look of disapproval.
“But what will you do with her the rest of the time?” she inquired.
“Well, we’ll swim, hike, play with her cousins, cook, shop, hang out…” I trailed off when the other mom wandered over to talk to another group, too disappointed in my lack of scheduled summer activities to even feign enthusiasm. I shrugged and went to fetch my kid and take her to do nothing in particular.
I’ve only been a mom for five years, so I don’t know exactly when summers shifted from the free-roaming, shoe-less, sunburned, Coppertone-drenched days of my youth to the three months of scheduled classes and camps that kids experience today. I worked in schools for the last decade and had witnessed the tides of summer turning over the years. At the end of the school year, I’d ask students about their summer plans, and they’d rattle off activities that, at 42, I’d be thrilled to list on my résumé. I remember one fifth grader who said she’d be spending her three-month vacation at sleepaway camp, marine biology camp, Shakespeare camp and voice lessons. I tried to gauge if she was psyched about her summer lineup, but she lacked the youthful giddiness that typically accompanies the beginning of summer.
I understand that many of these activities are a necessity for working parents who, come June, find themselves without childcare and with nowhere to take their kids during work hours. And I realize that many kids thrive on this kind of structure and love their classes and camps. Maybe it’s the fact that I was raised by children of the 60s, or that I was very much a free-range child, but our family thrives on loosely structured summers. In fact, at 5-years-old, when our daughter has the time and space to just run around and be a kid, to create and imagine, she seems to thrive in all areas–her sleep improves, her moods are more consistent, her language and critical thinking skills soar.
In 2016, it’s hard to imagine that I could give my daughter a childhood as simple and innocent as mine was in the 80s, but I hope that, at least during her summer breaks, I can recreate for her some of the idyllic experiences I treasured. When I was a kid, summer meant wearing your swimsuit and flip flops all day, plastic pool rafts that stuck to your skin when temperatures soared and eating popsicles on the front porch while the sun went down. We traveled through the neighborhood on skateboards or the handlebars of each other’s bikes, which resulted in the occasional ER visit, but we survived.
We spent our days fighting the waves of the Pacific until salt collected on our skin, searching for sea slugs in the tide pools, then squealing with delight and horror when our brother poked them and they squirted their purple ink. We lay in the sun for hours waiting for the morning mist to make way for the sunshine. And when it did, we sunbathed until our skin got pink and peely, then we peeled the skin off each other’s backs before we went to sleep that night. I look at photos of these times, all of us grinning as if we knew how great we had it — 0ur skin bronzed and our hair bleached from the sun.
My daughter is far from being a free-range kid, but I try to make her summer memories as beautiful as the ones I had. And I hope to be able to keep her summers simple and loosely scheduled for as long as possible, allowing her summer breaks to be truly that, a break — encouraging her to learn about the world in a different way for a few brief months, to experience its beauty, to sit quietly and listen, to observe, to feel warm sand between her toes and cool water on her face, to drink from the hose, to run around the neighborhood with her friends, dragging a stick behind her in the dirt for no good reason, to spend so much time engrossed in a book that the shadows on her bedroom wall change. These times are perfect. These times are summer.
*This post is dedicated to my mom, whose steadfast commitment to unscheduled summers, to the power of just sitting quietly and appreciating the magnificence of an oak tree; to the allure of the ocean, the park and the library; to going barefoot; to dance; and to the sheer beauty of the written word, has made me who I am. Thank you, mom, for this legacy. I love you.