The American tradition of summer vacation began in the late 19th century, when families’ lives were very different. Back then, virtually all mothers stayed home and children had a great deal of freedom. Today, most mothers work, and even if they’re not working, they’d rather not stay at home all day. In addition, children have far, far less freedom than they had decades ago. An indication of how times have changed is the US Census Bureau research publication entitled, “Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2005/Summer 2006.” Back when summer vacation began over 100 years ago, no one would even ask this question. Kids, even older toddlers, minded themselves, only coming home to get meals.
In sum, most parents today find this 100+ year old tradition problematic. No longer do they simply set their kids free in their neighborhoods everyday during the summer. Outside of the one to four weeks they block out for a family vacation, many parents feel compelled to schedule summer camps or other structured activities (e.g. summer school or adult-supervised recreation programs) for their children to fill all the non-vacation weeks. All the planning for these camps and activities takes a lot of parents’ time in the winter and spring. Then, in the summer, the logistics of dropping off and picking up kids at a different camp or activity every week or two can be quite a challenge. This is true because the locations change; pickup and drop-off times change; and the children in each camp or activity are different, making ridesharing arrangements between multiple families difficult or impossible.The children whose parents, for one reason or other, haven’t arranged for summer camps or structured activities aren’t running freely through their neighborhoods playing, either. Their neighborhoods are dead, so they pass day after day with their eyes glued to screens and their butts firmly planted on a chair. Parents of these children can’t help but feel that their children are wasting away each summer.
Given parents’ frustration with summers, along with widespread alarm in the past few decades over children’s educational attainment, it would seem inevitable that summer vacation would be partially or entirely eliminated. In fact, President Barack Obama has called for a longer school year, pointing to the fact that students other countries like Japan, South Korea, and Germany spend about 200 days per year in school versus 180 for American students. However, extending school into the summer is a big challenge for school districts because of their financial constraints. Budgets are chronically tight. Every year, it seems, school boards threaten to cut expenditures as teachers threaten to strike. It’s difficult to imagine many districts coming up with extra money to pay their teachers through the summer.
So, it seems that summer vacation is safe, at least in the near term, but no one is happy, least of all the children. School is more stressful for them than ever, and yet they find no freedom and little fun after school ends in June.
The only solution to this mess, in my opinion, is to somehow invigorate neighborhoods for kids so they and their parents feel like they can pass some worthwhile time there in the summer. I’ve tried to do this in many ways, primarily through a neighborhood summer camp I’ve run for a dozen or so neighborhood kids the past two summers. Since I first wrote about this idea, it’s spread a bit, and in fact, two moms in Palo Alto, California outdid me this past summer by running a fabulous neighborhood summer camp for 44 kids.
The theory behind running these camps is that neighborhood kids will become more familiar with each other and with places in their neighborhood, and then continue playing there together on their own after the camp is over. These efforts have been somewhat successful in this regard. During the school year, I sense that parents in my neighborhood aren’t filling up their kids’ schedules on afternoons and weekends like they do elsewhere because kids can often find things to do on their own. However, we have a lot further to go. There’s an awful lot of time to fill in a kid’s summer, and I don’t think any parents around here are going to leave their kids’ summers schedules totally open anytime soon.