No more school, homework, getting up early or having to go to bed early. Summer holidays are here.
It’s the most welcome time of the year for students across the world. From the time schools came into existence, summer holidays have meant a special kind of fun in the sun. But in the last decade or so, the winds of change have been so strong that traditional summer lazing for children has almost become a thing of the past. With families going nuclear and the demands of modern life making time a premium commodity, summer time is now time for scheduling kids’ activities as opposed to letting them simply savour a laidback time of the year. No longer are summer holidays simply a time to be and let be. The overiding concern of parents during the summer break is; How can I keep my child busy?
In the UK. an ongoing debate is questioning the validity of the six-week summer break. Many say it is too long - for both parents and children. In the UAE, we have over two months of extra time as well as more than two months of intense heat and indoor lifestyles. Finding the balance between busy and quiet, fun and boring, educational and entertaining for children as well as parents can be a challenge.
How can parents enusre their child enjoys summer in a way that is not overscheduled and as equally regimented as school time? How can parents bring back the balance in summer where their child finds equal time to relax and idle as well as stay engaged in productive activities?
Summer holidays are often seen by most parents as the perfect opportunity to address academic challenges. Summer school, extra tutoring, special classes in all their various shapes and forms, are all on offer and seen as the perfect way to keep a child who is not quite up to expectations of either parent or school busy. Opportunities for play, exploration and fun for fun’s sake dwindle as summer holidays becomes an extension of the school year: learning, learning and more learning.
“In the early years of childhood, it all seems pretty simple,” says Elizabeth Biggs, child behaviour specialist, kidsFirst Medical Centre, Dubai. “Families tend to divide the holiday perhaps travelling together and spending time at home. On the home front, play dates, visits to the zoo, creating play areas, devising time at the swimming pool are some of the activities that fill long summer days. As the child grows and develops his own interests, holidays may become more complicated in both planning and execution.”
Ideally, holiday time needs to be divided between family activities and the preferences of individual members. she says. Often, it is the individual time — time when the family is at home and children are expected to entertain themselves to some extent — that presents difficulties.
Between the “easier” early years of parental guidance and control and the later teen years of independence and connection outside the family exists a space in time that will influence the individual’s later holiday choices. “Filling a child’s day with every activity and experience, leaving no time to relax and unwind may well have the same effect as leaving a child to their own devices day after day with the TV or console for company,” says Biggs. “Neither will learn the ability to transfer between activity and relaxation.”
This learned behaviour is crucial for every individual, whether an adult or a child. It is what helps us to grow mentally, emotionally and psychologically as we benefit from using both states of mind to become achievers.
Finding the balance takes effort and time. First, parents need to acknowledge that summer holidays are on purpose a device to let the child detach for a while and re-engage with scholastic goals. So, this off-time is desirable.
Having accepted that, the next thing is to step back and consider the natural inclinations of your child. Just as every adult has his own idea of a vacation or downtime, every child has a unique approach to the time spent as leisure.
Get to know the natural rhythms of your child: is he normally active or quiet and contemplative? Is he into sport, drama or art? What motivates him or her? What’s their normal type of interest? Exploratory, moderate or none?
To devise activities that will help him make the most of his own potential and time, parents should first figure out the above factors.
Next is the planning. Create a schedule that includes everyone’s needs without each day turning into an organisational nightmare. Use moderation with consideration when planning.
Moderation is important when balancing activity and relaxation. If your child is obsessed with soccer and wants to attend camps that run all morning and then those that run all afternoon, he must be gently dissuaded because he also needs sufficient downtime for relaxation and self-entertainment.
The importance of free play
Parents who both work and have no help at home, face an especially difficult time. Summer camps offer a solution: keeping children safe and occupied through the day. But these cater to a limited age group (generally about age 12) and many children feel they have outgrown this before the age of 12. Early experiences of learning the balance between being entertained and entertaining themselves are reflected in children for whom holidays represents a time for exploring hobbies, learning new skills, practising old ones, catching up where necessary on academic skills, meeting up with friends and spending time entertaining themselves – including playstation, TV and other electronics.
Children learn by example. Parents who model the ability to entertain themselves but are open and available to family time and fun will pass on to their children the same values.
Madhavi Murthy, managing director, Acore Education Institute, Dubai, outlines the learning process. At her training centre, they run summer activities for students where the classes are focused and short. “Creativity develops in children up to the age of 7-8 years,” she says. “After that the rational brain starts getting trained (left brain) through inputs from school, parents and society – understanding limits, discerning right from wrong, developing language and communication skills, etc. In order to encourage this creativity, we include activity based learning in nursery and kindergarten and primary school. But all these are guided activities – equally important, and often overlooked these days, is free play. With no inputs from computer/TV/parents, a child will be forced to create his/own entertainment. He/she will then take up imaginary games, draw, craft something with glue and paper, read etc. With no one hovering over him telling him what to do and how to do it, he will be forced to think for himself and find his own solutions.”
Murthy connects with her own childhood, “When we were kids, afternoons were our favourite time for a simple reason – all the grown-ups were asleep and we were free to do what we wanted, little realising the skills we were learning in the process — how to invent, how to circumvent, how to entertain ourselves. Nowadays kids drive parents mad with their constant refrain of ‘I’m so bored!’. If we dared say that to our parents, we’d be marched to the study table and told to study — so we tried our best to stay out of their sight and play as much as we could,” she laughs.
With times becoming more and more result-oriented, the simple joys of childhood are quickly disappearing. “With smaller family units and growing incomes, parents indulge their kids, or sometimes it’s simply that they don’t know how to keep the children busy or quiet — so the computer and the TV become convenient tools to keep kids passively occupied,” says Murthy.
The other bane of urban society is town planning and cheek-by-jowl residences. Playgrounds are therefore not always nearby. Sometimes even if a parent wants to, he may not find the physical conditions conducive to having his child play outdoors.
Having said that, in these times, few children know how to generate their own form of entertainment thanks to having been fed stimuli all the time. While summer camps, art and swimming lessons, dance and music classes are good activities, it isn’t healthy that kids are getting used to external stimuli and input all the time. “Guided activities are easier for parents and teachers because everything is controlled,” says Murthy.
According to Murthy, most parents don’t realise the importance of idle time. “They either want to see their kids studying or going for dance/music classes or tuitions. “‘Free time’ for kids means watching TV or playing video games or playing with their friends. Even children today hate to be left with “nothing to do”, she says.
It’s a rare sight to see a child in these times who wants to sit by himself and chase his imagination.
How do parents enable their children to be self-starters?
They can begin with switching off the TV/computer and sitting with their child and read a book.
if they do this often enough, their child will begin to enjoy the “idle time”. “The child will eventually find something to do — read, colour, play music, etc. Parents can see their child’s creativity unfolding as he/she tries out something new,” says Murthy.