Why Free Play is Important During the Summer

It's that time of year again: While some parents are planning 1970s-inspired summers of long days outside and campouts with friends, others are carefully planning each moment with fun camps and other activities to fill the workdays. And some parents are cruising the racks of their local bookstore in search of the perfect summer-learning workbooks.

It's easy to look back upon our youth as the standard for the “perfect” summer, but the truth is that nothing is ever perfect, and work schedules don't always allow for unlimited outside play.

Summer can be a bit of a mixed bag for many.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones. While being my own boss has its downsides (insurance, oh my!), it also has its perks. During my office hours, my kids enjoy time with their super fun babysitter, and my writing can be done at night.

Finding balance is a challenge, but, on the positive, I can make time for endless outdoor play and a slower pace. That's what works for my kids. But all families are different, and it's possible to create a playful balance and utilize the resources available in your community.

Make time for nature.

The benefits of outdoor play and slowing down are numerous. Children learn a lot about the world around when engaged in outdoor play. While watching a group of ants march across the patio might seem boring to an adult accustomed to more action and interaction, kids learn a lot from watching bugs do their work. It's calming, it's interesting, and it's fun!

You don't need to plan an elaborate nature hike or enroll in an outdoor science camp to give your kids the benefits of playing in the great outdoors. Step into your backyard or head to the nearest park and watch your kids get lost in the wonders of nature.

Learning through outdoor play is far better than sitting inside, filling the pages of a workbook. Hands-on, active learning engages kids and sparks a different kind of learning than many kids experience during school.

{ MORE: Utah Becomes the First in the Nation to Legalize Free-Range Parenting }

Image via Flickr/ guilherme jofili

Resist the urge to plan.

Playing with other kids is a lot of fun and a great way to hone those social interaction skills. The big difference between social play thirty years ago and social play today is the highly structured nature of the “play date.” Free play was once the norm when kids got together, but today, specific plans are made and carefully selected craft activities round out an afternoon of play.

Resist the urge to micromanage play. Your kids will experience greater benefits from play with other children when they are in charge of the play. Group play requires negotiation, cooperation, establishing rules and boundaries, working through differences, set up (particularly for older children engaged in higher level play), and compromise. When adults step in and run the play, kids miss out on opportunities to grow and learn together.

Find playful camps.


The nice thing about parenting these days is that the options are endless. The complicated thing about parenting these days is that the options are endless. There are summer camps to fill any possible interest and sports camps intended to help kids hone their skills in the offseason everywhere.

Step back and think about what summer really means before filling each week with enrichment camps. Try to find a playful, outdoor camp that includes a little bit of everything. While sports camps are great for exercise, a fun game of kickball with a group of campers is another great option. Talk with your kids about their interests and things they want to try that they can't do during the school year, and go from there.

{ MORE: Tips to Motivate You to Get the Kids Outside (Even Though it Gets Dark So Early) }

Just be sure to factor in plenty of free play when they're home.

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Why Free Play is Important During the Summer

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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