- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005

It’s only June and summer is lost.

At least for most kids these days, whose structured summer activities will make them as stressed out as their parents.

Childhood was better when I grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Adults were always present — most moms were home — and so long as they knew where we were going, we were free to roam.

We’d go on bike hikes deep into the hills, visiting the game reserve to feed the bulls and other animals. Or we’d find the steepest hill and race to the bottom.

Some days we’d play baseball from dawn until dinner. Or we’d go down to the creek and build a dam out of rocks, then catch frogs, crayfish and minnows.

One of my favorite activities was building shacks and forts. With all the new houses going up nearby, we were able to scarf some scrap wood and use our imagination to design and build our own little dream homes.

Or we’d dabble in a little mischief. It was a primitive hunting instinct that led us to whip rotten pears at moving cars, and we knew the consequences if we got caught (though I never did).

The only real rules for kids then were, 1) that we were given lots of trust until we did something that caused our parents to question it, 2) that we be home for dinner.

I still hear my father’s booming voice ricocheting off the hills, “Tom, dinner! Tom, dinner!” Some families used bells or horns to call their kids home.

And summer dinners were grand. The Big Guy would grill up chicken or pork chops, while my sisters and I brought the salad, vegetables and potato salad out from the kitchen. My mother made sun tea most days and after several hours exploring the woods it always hit the spot.

After dinner, we’d listen to Bob Prince announce the Pirates’ games — “You can kiss it goodbye!” he’d say when “Wilbur” Stargell smacked one into the upper decks. And after cleaning up, we’d head on up to the woods. We’d play the games we invented until darkness settled over the hills.

But such free-roaming playfulness is gone for kids — gone now that their parents have stolen summer.

Today, kids’ summer schedules are planned out in more detail than a corporate CEO’s. Kids are required to improve their aptitude for reading, math and computers. If they do play sports, they play carefully designed games intended to improve motor skills.

“Too many parents are building resumes for their kids rather than leaving them free to play,” says Carleton Kendrick, a Harvard-educated psychotherapist and co-author of Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s. “But a kid’s work IS play.”

For the last 20 years, he’s seen kids growing ever more stressed as the carefree laughter of backyards and swimming holes have been replaced with goal-oriented, adult-managed activities.

“Too many parents believe that unstructured, unsupervised time is the equivalent of wasted time, and a reflection of poor parenting, but they got it backwards.”

Kendrick points to recent scientific research that shows self-initiated, unstructured creative play is the single most important activity that young children can engage in to develop at all developmental levels, including neurological and cognitive growth.

“Kids whose lives are so tightly structured and scheduled are not learning how to feel comfortable on their own, alone with their imagination, free to pursue their natural curiosities and sense of wonder,” he says. “They’re losing their ability to become resourceful, self-reliant and resilient.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Because while kids today use the few spare moments they do have to stoke their adrenaline by playing video games inside air-conditioned basements, we knew what real adrenaline really was.

Until you have an irate driver, whose car you just pelted with rotten pears, chase you into a creek aqueduct that runs under the neighborhood, you have no idea what adrenaline really is, let alone resourcefulness, self-reliance and resilience.

As I said, summers were better when I was a kid.

Tom Purcell


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