What the three Nafziger kids (ages 3, 9 and 1) are doing on their summer break can be summed up in one word: nothing.
They may swim in Lake Nokomis. Or not.
The oldest, Linus, might take a ceramics class at the neighborhood pottery studio. Or not.
They may ride their bikes to the library. Or not.
When it comes to their family schedule, Minneapolis parents Adam and Nikki Nafziger have made a choice — one guided by the belief that unstructured days of summer are as important as the routine of the school year.
“Childhood is becoming increasingly programmed, managed and quantified,” Adam said. “Summer is a unique time to not have to live by a schedule, at least for kids. They’ll have their entire adult life to do that.”
Following decades of warnings of the academic “summer slide” and “brain drain,” cautious parents began cramming their kids’ calendars with enrichment activities and summer camps to give them a leg up on their future.
Now, a growing body of research on the negative effects of an overscheduled childhood is prompting a new generation of parents to scale back their summer plans. These parents say there’s a downside to no downtime.
“There’s a lot of societal pressure to expose our kids to all of this stimulation, but we’re forgetting about the internal spark that is really important,” said Julie Burton, a mother of four, local author, entrepreneur and wellness expert. “It’s really sad, because kids need to know how to create on their own, go outside, build something, make up a game.”
Burton added, “When we overschedule them, we don’t allow that part of their brains to really develop.”
Allowing for boredom
Johnna Holmgren’s peaceful parenting approach has captured the interest of 121,000 followers on Instagram through her Fox Meets Bear moniker.
As society speeds up, parents following this model say they and their kids need to be purposeful about slowing down. Although her children are still young (6, 2 and 7 months), Holmgren said she still feels the pressure to make elaborate plans for them in summer.
“Our oldest is barely 6, but everyone wants to know what she’s going to be doing this summer,” she said. “We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
That includes spending the majority of their daylight hours outdoors on their wooded property, 20 minutes outside of St. Paul: feeding ducks and chickens, making art, gardening, foraging for snacks, reading, listening to music and meditating. Nearly every day, the family gathers outside on carpet squares. They sit still, listen to a poem or music and talk about what they’re grateful for and excited about.
“That’s what childhood should be,” Holmgren said. “Being content in imagination play and lowering distractions so that there’s ample room for wonder, flexibility, discovery and curiosity.”
But not every family has that luxury. Minnesota has one of the nation’s highest rates of dual-working households. About 65 percent of children under age 11 live in a household where all the adults are employed. Many of those families have to patch together a quilt of summer camps, swimming lessons, soccer leagues and violin lessons to supply much needed child care when kids are out of school.
“There’s no doubt that some of these activities are great — they can be enriching, cognitive-stimulating and fun,” said Allison Jessee, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas. “But sometimes they can feel like a lot of pressure and create anxiety in both parents and kids.”
Jessee is an advocate of unstructured time, and even boredom.
“It’s good for kids to be bored sometimes — it helps them be creative and come up with new ideas,” she said. “When parents are always working to find activities for their kids, it can be harder for those kids to play independently, wonder about things and entertain themselves — all really important skills.”
Having too many scheduled activities can also take away from family time, or throw off age-appropriate bedtimes and sleep schedules.
The power of play
Jeff Lin can’t give his kids (ages 6, 4 and 2) an ’80s summer like he had, when his parents would kick him out of the house in the morning to play throughout the neighborhood, with instructions to come home only for lunch and dinner. “I did that, and I like to think I turned out OK,” he said. “It’s not like if you’re not in math camp at age 5 you’re never going to graduate from college.”
But even though Lin and his wife work full-time jobs outside their Minneapolis home, they’re committed to making sure their kids have plenty of opportunities to play in the dirt, ride the city bus, walk to the grocery store — and be bored.
To make this happen, the Lins have created a nanny-share arrangement with two other families. The setup provides affordable child care and plenty of unstructured playtime under the supervision of a responsible adult.
Like the Lins, more than 80 percent of parents in the Twin Cities area said they played more when they were kids than their own children do today, according to a recent Minnesota Children’s Museum survey.
“As parenting has become more and more child-focused, parents often feel pressure to be a ‘good’ parent, which often means enrolling kids in multiple classes, activities and sports,” Jessee said. “The idea is that this is what ‘good’ parents do to give their kids a leg up and an advantage for the future.”
Lin has felt that pressure. So much so he’s questioned his approach to parenting in summer. “Am I a bad parent? I’m questioning my dedication to my kids because I’m not doing these things,” he said. “But I always fall back to feeling confident and seeing my kids blossom in their own way.”
During what was supposed to be a quick walk to the hardware store and back a few weeks ago, Lin said, his kids got sidetracked by a colony of ants on the sidewalk. “I didn’t get them home in time for their baths and they went to bed late that night, but they spent 30 minutes staring at ants,” he said. “I hope they spend time doing more mundane things like that this summer.”