Summers: Skill-Building or Neighborhood Fun?

When I was a kid, summers were about bonding with other kids in our neighborhood. Other than our family vacations, which usually lasted two weeks, I played with the same kids every day in the same place, summer after summer. We developed deep attachments to each other, to each other’s parents, and to the place in which we lived.

photo courtesy

Sure, we played together after school and on weekends during the school year, but it was summer, for the most part, when we built those tight bonds.

Contrast this with kids’ summers around here. Neighborhoods are ghost towns. It’s just like the school year – practically zero kids are outside playing. And what are they doing? For the most part, other than going on family vacations, kids of kindergarten age and up are going to summer day camps.Until recently, I was totally clueless about the summer day camp industry because I never went to a summer camp, and my oldest child is 3-1/2. I’m absolutely flabbergasted. There are dozens of choices of camps, from academic subjects to language immersion to sports to theater to art to “outdoor fun.” Other than the latter, these camps are not focused on fun. Rather, they’re focused on improving some sort of skill, and “fun” is merely a way of making that skill-building palatable to the kids.

Pretty much all camps last for only a week or two. What’s more, parents have to apply to get their kids into these camps months before (applications for most camps this summer are coming in now), and many camps are so popular that many applications will be rejected. Jefunira Camp, a free play-based camp that I like more than any other one I’ve heard of, had one spot for every ten applications for children K-2 last year. That’s a 90% rejection rate!

So, parents scramble like crazy to get their kids into multiple summer camps each winter, and then, come summer, they shuffle their kids to one camp, then another, then another. Kids learn “skills,” but don’t spend much time with any particular kids or in any particular places.

This sucks, to put it bluntly.

We might as well have school twelve months a year. Summer has largely turned into an extension of the school year with a series of week-long semesters. Kids don’t get a chance to play free of adult supervision. They don’t get a chance to develop tight relationships with other parents and adults in their neighborhoods. They don’t get to know the sidewalks and bushes and lawns and streets of their neighborhoods.

Would you feel comfortable leaving your kids with this crazy guy for two weeks this summer?

I’m so pissed about this that I’m going to try something really daring this June: I’m going to provide my own “summer camp” for two weeks (and maybe more – we’ll see…) to my 3-1/2 year-old and a half dozen or so other toddlers from our neighborhood. I’ll even give it a name: the “Guinda Street Playborhood”. (Like the name? Want to suggest a better one?)

Every morning, we’ll play something, right in our neighborhood. We’ll do this in front yards and in the street (with BIG CONES to block traffic). So, we’ll be very visible to neighbors and passers-by. We’ll play whiffle ball and soccer and street hockey and tag and have water balloon fights and water gun fights and splash paint around.

I’ll try to draw other neighborhood kids into our group, even for an hour or so if I can. I’ll try to get neighborhood adults involved.

And lastly, I’ll try to help these kids play these games themselves, so as much as possible, after getting things started, I’ll try to stay in the background.

I already have four kids signed up. Wanna bring yours? Or, would you like to do something like this in your neighborhood? Lemme know…

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One Response to Summers: Skill-Building or Neighborhood Fun?

  1. Laura Tannenwald says:

    Hi Mike,
    We’re the ones from San Diego that are moving to Palo Alto this summer. Tell me where you’ll be playing and I’ll bring my boys (ages 9 and 7) over! They know how to roam and play in the street. They’ll teach all of the other kids how to yell “car” and run to the sidewalk!