- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

The first week of August means the neighborhood children are at the beach, camp is over, school is a good month away from beginning again, the pool is getting old, and the sidewalk chalk is broken.

"Mom, I'm bored," comes the whine from the playroom.

This, no doubt, is a common scenario in these dog days. It doesn't have to be. With a little planning and imagination, the back yard can become a museum, the basement an amusement park.

"My way to cope this time of year is to shut off the TV and the Game Boy and get down on the floor with the kids at their level and let the free time blossom into something," says Anne McKay, a Great Falls mother of three children, ages 9, 7 and 2. "It is OK for kids to spread out a blanket and watch the leaves or read a book. It is OK for kids to have vacant time."

Chances are, children aren't really as bored as they or their parents think they are, says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a New York psychiatrist and author of the book "The Over-Scheduled Child."

Children today have so many activities during most of the year that often they forget what downtime is like, Dr. Rosenfeld says. A summer with open time can be a stark contrast to the other nine months of the year, when a child's schedule might be packed with soccer, ballet, swim lessons, school, chorus and coordinated play dates, for example.

"I think it is hard for parents in the summer because kids are so scheduled during the year," he says. "In fact, the rules in the summer are different."

Dr. Rosenfeld says children need some activities in the summer, but it is important to maintain perspective when looking at the calendar. The object is to have fun, he says, not become the next Picasso or Pele.

That is becoming increasingly harder, though. Camps used to offer a general experience of outdoor life, sports and swimming. Today's parents and children have a plethora of specialty choices.

"The rise in specialty camps very much reflects that today's goal is to raise the next Tiger Woods," Dr. Rosenfeld says. "Parents somehow feel remiss if there is one activity their kids are signed up for. All this enrichment gives the message that to even be adequate we need all this enrichment.

"If a kid loves soccer, then going to soccer camp is going to be a wonderful experience," he says. "But if going to soccer camp is so he can sharpen his soccer skills so he can get a scholarship, then that is going to be destructive."

Unscheduled and imaginative

The break in the routine of lessons and camps may seem daunting, but in the end, everyone just might have fun, Dr. Rosenfeld says.

"Kids need a certain amount of unscheduled time," he says. "That sometimes terrifies parents, but it is in that unscheduled time that the imagination takes over."

Lisa Montague, a Reston mother of two middle school students, agrees. She recalls how, a few summers ago, she started summer vacation by putting no limit on the amount of television the children and their visiting cousins could watch.

The youngsters had a marathon in front of the set for about a day, then moved on to putting on elaborate plays and creating an imaginary world with dolls, Mrs. Montague says.

Summer is the ideal time for siblings of different ages to discover the spontaneous play that might be missing when they are on different schedules the rest of the year, says Brad E. Sachs, a Columbia, Md., psychologist and author of the book "The Good Enough Child: How to Have an Imperfect Family and Be Perfectly Satisfied."

"Most kids, when given the room, will find ways to entertain themselves," Mr. Sachs says. "We have gotten in the habit of scheduling these opportunities. Obviously, when there are children of different ages, they sometimes are not going to be able to do the same activities all the time. On the other hand, learning to be empathetic and flexible to another's needs is a gift siblings offer each other that is much more important than being on the select soccer team."

Finding fun around the corner

Doreen Morehouse, a Reston mother of two girls ages 2 and 5, did not send her older daughter to camp this summer. It would get in the way of all the other fun the girls could be having, she says.

"There are so many things to do in the summer," says Mrs. Morehouse, the founder of OurKids.com, a Web site that has listings of Washington-area parks, playgrounds and activities. "There is life beyond the pool."

Mrs. Morehouse says that by not having a specific schedule, she and the girls are able just to jump in the car and go.

And go they do to museums, to movies and to children's shows and concerts.

"There is so much to do, I find I am busier in the summer," she says. "We are not so driven by school and activities. It is pretty much a blank slate."

Life isn't totally spontaneous, though. Mrs. Morehouse says she puts some thinking into the next day or the rest of the week about a day ahead of time. That way when the children ask "What are we going to do today?" Mrs. Morehouse has a plan, even if the plan calls for hanging around the house blowing bubbles or making puppets out of paper bags.

Going out to do things does not have to cost a lot, she points out. Some of her favorite activities:

• Outdoor children's shows.

"There are free summer concerts in every town," she says. "You can go to one every night if you want."

Among her favorites are the free children's shows at Reston's Washington Plaza on Lake Anne on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, puppet shows at Colvin Run Park in Great Falls and Fairfax County's Arts in the Parks program on Saturday mornings.

Wolf Trap's Theatre-in-the-Woods offers families the opportunity to see child-friendly shows for $3 a ticket. Montgomery County Regional Parks sponsors a free Summer Sounds in the Parks concert series.

• Summer movies. Many movie theaters have special morning shows featuring children's movies with free or low-cost admission. It is a great way to get out of the hot sun and see a favorite old movie, Mrs. Morehouse says. Free outdoor movies, such as the ones shown in Herndon on Saturday nights or downtown on the National Mall on Monday nights, are also a fun change.

• Staying home. A row of chairs can be an airplane, and a cardboard box can be a rocket ship. Give children a box of dress-up clothes and let their imaginations take over, Mrs. Morehouse says.

She also has organized a teddy bear picnic and set up an obstacle course in the living room. Even mundane tasks, such as housework and cooking, can be fun for children, she adds.

In the end, the togetherness and free time of summer and not necessarily basketball camp is what a child might remember years from now, Dr. Rosenfeld says.

"A life that consists of endless activities demonstrates to our children that we expect them to be hyperactive workaholics who run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.," he says. "It says we don't believe they are good enough as they are. It is good for families to spend unproductive time together shooting hoops, taking walks, talking, reading, playing games.

"The fact that the parent enjoys spending time with a child with no apparent goal lets him know that you find him more interesting than just about anything else in the world," he says. "Nothing will bolster his self-esteem more effectively."

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