For the first time since they each turned 6, Eva Rosenwald of Ann Arbor, Michigan, will not be sending her two children, Ruby, age 7, and Henry, 8 1/2, to day camp. "I couldn't stomach another summer of paying lots of money for a camp, having to schlep my kids to places they didn't want to go, when we could be playing at the pool with friends, or hanging in a more relaxed, chill way at home," she says. Disappointed by rigorous, school-like rules at sporty, nature-oriented and creative camps of the past, she's banking on an occasional tennis lesson, family trips, time with grandparents, and old-fashioned play to keep her kids occupied. The Rosenwalds aren't the only ones opting for a free-range summer. Nearly half of the 399 sleepaway and day camps polled in the American Camp Association's 2009 spring-enrollment survey reported decreases of 10 percent to 15 percent, with the economy cited as a key reason.
Even if it's driven by financial belt-tightening, experts say a return to the more laid-back ways of the past—when summer meant pickup baseball games and lazy afternoons making mud pies in the backyard—is not only a good thing, it's essential. Relying too much on camps and other adult-supervised activities to keep kids occupied can hamper development of their creative and leadership abilities. "Parenting is a higher calling than being a cruise-ship activities director," says Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of "The Overscheduled Child." "Boredom is not necessarily our children's enemy. It can stimulate [children] to think, create, and hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story, draw that unique picture, or invent some new game." Rosenfeld points out that Alexander Graham Bell and Stephen Spielberg, for example, used empty periods to tinker and create something special.
Joan Almon, executive director of the Alliance for Childhood, says the disappearance of play, especially in the summer, is a huge problem. While a week or two of camp in the summer is fine, she says kids also need large periods of unstructured time to "follow their passions." This is the first generation to suffer a lack of play, which Almon says could ultimately lead to a greater tendency toward violence and aggression, depression and lack of social skills. As a preschool and kindergarten teacher for nearly 20 years, Almon says studies support what she frequently saw: "Children who could not play well were often aggressive toward others. As they developed greater play skills, their aggressive behavior declined."
Ed Miller, cofounder of the Alliance for Childhood and an author of the organization's spring 2009 report "Crisis in the Kindergarten," cites research showing that free play has dwindled to less than 30 minutes a day in most kindergartens, because of pressure to teach academics. Miller says teachers in Los Angeles kindergarten rooms (where 25 percent reported no time at all for free play) report that kids don't know what to do with unstructured time when they get it and become frustrated and anxious. Lack of time for dramatic play with other children, he adds, means that kids never learn the social skills of negotiation and compromise encouraged by such activity. "That's pretty scary when you're talking about 5-year-olds who should be full of ideas," says Miller.
"It's being drilled out of them," he says, by teachers who are focused on preparing kids for standardized tests and parents who often insist upon it to build their preschooler's résumé. Miller's research shows that when adults are asked about their most positive childhood experiences, they invariably include activities that took place when no adults were around, like tunneling through snowdrifts and mucking through swamps to catch frogs. "These are deeply formative and important experiences that build children's sense of competence, initiative, and self-reliance," he says. In that light, "the economic downturn might be the best thing that ever happened to kids," says Roberta Golinkoff, a professor of education, psychology and linguistics at the University of Delaware and author of A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool. By encouraging adaptability and exploration, "play helps children get the skills they need to succeed in the workplace of the 21st century," she says.
A week or two of camp where kids can hike, swim, and experience nature firsthand is still considered beneficial, especially if there's enough downtime built in. Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, says many camps leave time for quiet reflection and the "opportunity to just hang." For the children of working parents, she adds, such camps offer a much-needed opportunity to roam in a safe and well-supervised environment.
But such traditional camps are hardly the only option. At 14, Sam Student (yes, that's his real name) headed from his home in Marlton, New Jersey, to Huntsville, Alabama, for an $800, weeklong Mission Specialist Session at Space Camp, where he cherished the chance to strap on jet packs that astronauts used and experience gravity like that on the moon. When he was 11, Jorge Ospina, from Irving, Texas, attended a $200, weeklong engineering camp run by the University of Texas, Arlington. He learned, he says, how to "build bridges and design artificial organs," and left more determined than ever to become an engineer.
Many high-school students spend their summers on college campuses, taking classes that give them a glimpse into college life and, in some cases, the chance to earn college credits. Brown University will host 2,500 high-school students this summer, while 84 budding journalists are shelling out $4,550 for room, board, and tuition at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, one of 50 such summer journalism programs, At Harvard, 1,000 students will pay $4,950 to attend a rigorous seven-week session. Psychologist Paul Donahue, author of Parenting Without Fear, who treats many stressed-out children and adolescents, thinks kids deserve a break from academics in the summer, especially these days, when the pressure to get into the best colleges seems to start in preschool. "There's a tendency to push academic camps on parents who feel that might be the best way to give their kids a leg up," he says.
For working parents who may not have the luxury of simply hanging out with their kids in the summer, Golinkoff suggests hiring a creative teenage babysitter, or sending the kids to spend time with their grandparents, an option many parents are taking advantage of this summer. While there's no concrete research on the benefits of "Camp Grandma," Golinkoff says, it's a great opportunity for kids to get to know grandparents they don't have time to connect with during the busy school year.
Grandparents can pay attention to the child in a way a busy parent often cannot. "They're not in a hurry to get home and check e-mail," says Golinkoff, and they give kids a sense of where they came from, along with unconditional love. "Grandparents can give them outdoor time, downtime, and imaginative time, which is what children naturally, innately need," says psychologist Georgia Witkin, author of the book KidStress, and director of the stress-research program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. A survey of more than 600 grandparents by Grandparents.com (where Witkin is a senior editor) found that 81 percent of them plan to spend at least part of the summer with their grandchildren.
Whether it's a trip to Grandma's house, building a tree fort or running through the sprinkler in the backyard, there will be more free play for more kids this summer, and families like the Rosenwalds are fine with that. "The summer will be theirs," says Eva Rosenwald. "Maybe it will be the same unremarkable but sweet thing every day, maybe they'll be swept up with a sudden interest in something new tomorrow and devote hours to it. I'm looking forward to finding out." Call it the spirit of 2009.