Standing in line a few weeks ago at my local Whole Foods market, Time magazine caught my eye. Its cover had an idyllic full-page picture of a young boy skipping stones on a pond, with the headline “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” I caught my breath and groaned, shaking my head in dismay. The subtitle read, “We romanticize it. But all that downtime is making our children fall behind.”
I have since read the article. Some of the concern is directed to lower income children who are often three grade levels behind their more affluent peers, according to the article. Certainly, more enrichment needs to go to all schools, especially those in underprivileged areas. Another point the author makes is that summer vacation is a throwback to an agrarian life where children helped out on the farm. As an alternative, he suggests that year-round school with shorter breaks every three months would fit our current lifestyle better. If this academic year could be structured in a way that supports working parents’ needs and provides enriching activities for children—not just daycare camps—this proposal might work. The author’s depiction of the dismal state of education for both children and teachers is accurate, too, but none of these concerns account for my sense of dismay.
My dismay arises from the shortsighted view that keeping up with the pack in the three Rs is the most important concern we have for our children. This teaches them that their value lies in how well they perform. We are producing stressed out kids who will grow into stressed out adults—adults who are prone to suffer from a sense of meaninglessness that may result in depression, addiction, or anxiety.
I am also dismayed with the idea that free, unstructured time for children is devalued and not seen as an essential part of learning and development. As a psychotherapist with a practice that includes play therapy, I have deep regard for the value of play. Play offers a time and space for children to enter the world of “what if?” It is a place to learn and discover new ways to experience the self and the world. It is not a waste of time, but a time to regroup and unwind.
In my practice every week I see children and parents who are stressed and worried. They need a break, not just more of the same pressure. Many of the children I see are labeled ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which often could be renamed ARAE, adverse reaction to long-term exposure to artificial environments.
In his award winning book the Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv cites a University of Illinois study. In this study, families of children 7-12 who have been labeled ADHD were asked to keep a log of the kinds of activities that left their child behaving especially well or especially poorly. One of the things the study revealed was that prolonged time indoors left ADHD children in the worst shape. What left them in the best shape was having time outdoors in natural settings.
If it is true that being in nature reduces the symptoms of ADHD, then the converse may also be true: ADHD may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature. By this line of thinking . . . the real disorder is less in the child than it is in the imposed, artificial environment. Viewed from this angle, a society that has disengaged the child from nature and natural play is most certainly disordered, if well-meaning.
Maybe the headline on the cover of Time, with the idyllic picture of the young boy at a pond, should read “The Case for Stone-Skipping, Park-Playing, and Beach-Going.”
Our children are thriving, and they gain even more as they have carefree time, especially out-of-doors.
© Copyright 2010 by Inge Dean, MS, LMFT, therapist in Berkeley, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.