When making summer plans for children, leave some time unplanned

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

The school year is ending, and it’s the time of year when families are planning what their children will do during summer vacation. For many families, these plans are crucial for childcare reasons, as parents need their children to be somewhere safe and supervised while they are at work. And of course, parents understandably want their children to use their vacation in ways that are productive and useful.

But here’s the thing: if you want your child’s vacation to be productive and useful, leave some of the vacation time unscheduled — or at least choose activities that have lots of embedded free time.

Keeping children busy has upsides, of course. It keeps them supervised. Depending on the activity, it may help them academically, help them learn a new skill or get them exercising. These are all important and good. But there are downsides to being fully scheduled and busy. Unscheduled time is important, crucial actually, for child development.

Benefits of unscheduled time

When children have unscheduled time, they learn to amuse themselves. Interestingly, this is a skill that children are losing — unless you count time on phones or other devices as amusing themselves, something that has all sorts of other downsides. The ability to come up with a game to play, or to create, or explore something, is something that has to be learned — and often grows out of boredom. Children need unstructured time to learn this skill. If you think that “amusing yourself” isn’t important, think of it in grownup terms: it is the ability to be at peace and happy without outside input, and the ability to create an idea or activity from scratch. These are skills that make all the difference in life.

Unscheduled time spent with others requires that children learn to negotiate and collaborate. When children are together in structured activities, much of that is already done for them — the roles and rules are decided already. The ability to work with others to create and decide roles and rules is a great way for children to learn skills that are crucial for workplace and life success.

All of this has to do with executive function, the “air traffic controller” skills that are part of everyday life in ways we don’t always appreciate. Those who master them are happier and more successful than those who don’t. It’s that simple.

As I said above, for working parents it’s not always easy to leave time unscheduled. But as you pick the places your child will spend his or her days, look for programs that have free or choice time built in — and have opportunities for creative collaboration.

Unscheduled time at home

And if your child does have some unplanned time at home, make sure they make the most of it. Limit time on devices to two hours or less each day. Make sure there are the tools for creativity and activity around the house — paper, paint, colored pencils, clay and other art materials (inexpensive stuff is fine), blocks and other building materials as well as balls and other equipment for active play (they can alter or make up games, all the better). Take trips to the library so that there are books. Take trips to parks for play or hikes. Have the kitchen available for cooking and baking (with supervision if kids are young). If they say that they are bored, resist the temptation to come up with an activity for them. Instead, remind them of everything around them, and leave it up to them to figure something out.

Sooner or later, they need to learn how to do this — and sooner is better than later.

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