At the end of arguably the most challenging school year in history, a lot of parents are ready to throw textbooks and progress reports into a summer bonfire. But many are also concerned about what their kids missed out on this year—academically or otherwise. So what’s a parent to do during summer break? Declare endless play in order to banish the memory of months of isolation? Or hunt down every last educational enrichment program to make up for lost learning?
And are we smashing the iPads and Chromebooks now or after lunch?
We asked three experts on play and child development about what’s at stake this summer and how families can make good use of time away from school.
Get serious about summer.
Bad news if you’re fed up with the endless pressure. This summer has heightened importance. “I do think both social and academic opportunities, depending on the child’s needs, are more critically important this summer than any summer I’ve been in the field,” says Graduate School of Education professor and former dean Deborah Stipek, an expert in early childhood and elementary education.
The good news is that much of what she recommends isn’t complicated. It’s crucial for children—from preschoolers to high schoolers—to play and socialize. But there are many ways for that to happen. “Free time or play time or sports or things that get them engaged with other kids close to their age is one of the first things I would look for as a parent,” Stipek says. “That can overlap with summer school and other kind of activities.”
Amy Jo Dowd, ’90, MA ’91, is head of evidence at the LEGO Foundation, which promotes learning through play around the world. “I would encourage parents to think of this summer primarily as a view into mental health and social-emotional interaction,” she says. “How do you get your kids interacting with other kids again?”
And peer socialization isn’t the only kind of socialization that’s important. This summer is an excellent time to visit grandparents, Dowd says.
Summer camps, sports and playdates are all good ideas, says Jelena Obradović, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and director of the Stanford Project on Adaptation and Resilience in Kids. So is letting kids loose in parks and backyards.
Unstructured, unscheduled free play promotes agency, independence and collaboration, she says. And it can help kids relearn how to be bored—and take advantage of that time—after the routine that often went hand-in-hand with indoor life.
‘Learning does not happen if you’re anxious or depressed and unmotivated.’
“When kids come together, they’ll negotiate, they’ll play, they’ll go around and do what kids do,” she says. “We should create opportunities, settings and spaces for kids to interact with each other to regain those in-person social and emotional skills.”
Play comes naturally (in case you forgot) so you don’t need to set an agenda. In fact, in a recent study, Obradović and her collaborators found that too much parental involvement in a child’s play can be counterproductive.
The researchers observed parents as their kindergarten-aged children engaged in playing, cleaning up toys, learning a new game and discussing a problem. The children whose parents stepped in more often with instructions, corrections or suggestions—despite their kids being on task—showed more difficulty regulating their behavior and emotions.
Summer is a good time to let your child take the driver’s seat, Obradović says. “Be mindful you’re not always stepping on their agency with your ideas or your directiveness.”
Enrichment is good; so is learning through play.
Many students will be behind in the fall, and, generally speaking, teachers will adjust accordingly, Stipek says. If tutoring or summer school is still deemed necessary, “don’t make it all day, every day,” she says. Sugar helps the medicine go down. Finding fun ways to learn without calling them lessons—like letting kids choose books at the library and reading together—can pay off, while forced academics may backfire.
As the working mother of two small kids, Obradović knows well that a summer of endless free play isn’t realistic for many. “The days are long, and parents still have to work, right?” she says. Plus, kids do thrive on structure. Many districts and community organizations have COVID-19-related funding for summer enrichment activities to catch kids up in numeracy or literacy, or to help with mental health. Parents should feel good about embracing such opportunities, she says. Play needn’t be pitted against organized options. “You can give them some structured support, whether it’s mental health or academic, from 9 to noon,” she says. “There are plenty of hours to roam and play and be physical.”
Ultimately, parents need to be mindful of how their kids are doing. If they’ve withdrawn or regressed in their social and emotional behavior over the school year, now’s not the time to prioritize academic learning, Obradović says. You should choose programs and opportunities, camps and sports included, that help get them to a better place. “Learning does not happen if you’re anxious or depressed and unmotivated,” she says. “There is a hierarchy of needs here.” Dowd has similar thoughts, adding that deficits in academic learning may be more easily measured, but emotional problems are ultimately likely to be more important and lasting.
It’s time to deal with screen time.
For many parents, the soaring rise in screen time over the past year is one of the more concerning consequences of the pandemic. Is summer the moment to lock up the iPads, tablets and other devices?
Obradović frames the situation differently. Screen time isn’t simply good or bad. The more meaningful measure, she says, is how it affects a child’s behavior. If tantrums, listlessness or “attitude” follow, then you may well have a problem that needs addressing even if the device helps keep quiet in the house.
“If you find yourself with the kid who does not know what to do with themselves unless they’re engaging with the screen, that’s a good sign to maybe limit the screen time and help engage them in play that’s not screen-mediated,” she says.
Stipek encourages a collaborative approach to setting limits. Kids do better with rules they help set themselves, she says.
Go easy on yourself.
Kids need breaks but so do parents, Obradović says. Camps are good for kids, but they also give parents a break to focus on work, which can help them better enjoy family time. “We have been working double jobs for the last year and a half, and the stress has been high,” she says. “I am a big proponent of telling parents to be kind to themselves.”
And maybe our breaks should go beyond summer. The resumption of normal life is a chance to think about whether your kids want their old lives back. “Was every one of the things on that list that kept them busy from 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock something they truly want to go back to?” Dowd says.
While we’re busy building agency, why don’t you ask them?
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.