Skip to main content

Colm Beattie, 12,and his younger sister Avery, spend some time swimming in the pond and looking for frogs in the creek at the back of their family's property in Collingwood, Ont., after getting home from their last school day of the year Thursday. Mom, Leslie McIntyre, behind, wants to keep her childrens' summer unstructured, and will allow them to play and explore rather than putting them in organized camps.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

What Colm Beattie, 12, and his 10-year-old sister Avery are doing on their summer vacation can be summed up in one word: nothing.

They may swim in the pond that sits on their 13-acre property in Collingwood, Ont. Or not. They may go fishing. Or not. They may ride their bikes. Or not.

Colm, Avery and their parents have made a choice – one guided by a philosophy that play is important. "In the past, we've had a massive plan of summer camps and schedules to keep our kids busy. This year, we are free-wheeling," said their mother, Leslie McIntyre.

"Both kids have worked hard at school this year and have been part of almost every school team, as well as other extracurriculars, and they just need a break."

Truth be told, Colm and Avery's summer plans, or rather the lack of them, are a bit of a luxury and quite possibly the envy of every other child in the neighbourhood. Their mother is a supply teacher, so she has the summer off. Their father owns his own business. Roughly 77 per cent of two-parent Canadian families whose youngest child is between 6 and 15 have both parents working, according to Statistics Canada, which makes an unstructured summer vacation out of reach for the majority of children.

As schools across the country close their doors this week, and children are free for two months, parents are once again making choices about what's best for their kids: a free-range summer or structured activities, whether it be classes or camp. On each side of the debate are experts with strongly held opinions.

Some educators believe we should allow kids to play freely – and allow them to be bored and figure out what to do with that boredom. They believe there is something to be said for balancing the knowledge children acquire 10 months of the year with some downtime to help their minds relax and function better come September.

"Middle-class families tend to over-structure kids' times, and schedule a whole lot of sports camps and summer activities. I think kids need time just to play around, to be creative, to be bored, to reflect, to figure out who they are and what they're interested in," said Carolyn Shields, dean of the College of Education at Wayne State University in Detroit. "I think if we're always putting them in structured activities that can't happen."

Prof. Shields recalls her own summer vacations where she and her family would head to their cottage in Georgian Bay to fish, swim and play with her cousins. There were very few summer camps. She sent her own children to the occasional sports camp or music camp, but she did not structure every week of their vacation.

"I think we're losing the idea of play. We are losing that to everybody's detriment," she said.

On the other side of the debate is Charles Pascal, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and the architect of Ontario's early learning plan. He fears that in some families, an unstructured summer vacation too often means time on the couch. Many kids, especially older ones, would like nothing more than to spend their summer vacation parked in front of the television or surfing the Internet.

Kids should not be overly scheduled in the summer, Dr. Pascal said, arguing that "naturally, some unstructured time is great."

"But if by unstructured, you mean nothing is mutually planned to keep body and mind active, that usually means stagnation," he said.

"Active kids in the summer, whether in sports or other play activities or a volunteer situation or helping parents with their business, are kids that are continuing to learn," he said. "Summer learning camps focused on various interests – math, circus skills, basketball – are more and more popular, and they need to be made accessible regardless of income."

Some education experts are concerned by the loss of academic knowledge over the summer months, especially among students from disadvantaged families. But for other families, summer camps also provide enrichment opportunities.

ErinRose Handy, a mother of two, believes the summer break should be a time of play – and also learning. Annabelle Handy, 9, and 6-year-old Quinn will participate in a week-long engineering and science camp at the University of British Columbia. That's not all, though. Annabelle will attend a drama camp. Quinn will be off to a soccer-computer-golf camp that he's "over the moon" about, Ms. Handy said. They'll both attend a gymnastics camp, and another less-structured play camp at the university.

There will be a few weeks of vacation with family, but as Ms. Handy, a communications manager at UBC, explained: "As working parents, our summers are filled with camps."

She believes her children will benefit from the hands-on learning in the summer months. Annabelle, who attended the UBC science camp two years ago, still remembers panning for gold, making a circuit and learning about crystals and minerals. There was even a water fight on the last day of camp.

Michael Fullan, former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's long-time education adviser, said parents need to find the right balance. He remembers his summers of "total freedom." He swam, caught and sold bait, and played baseball. "Parents need to be more self-aware regarding the summer period, avoiding over-programming kids, or the opposite of too much free time. Awareness and balance is the answer," he said.

Ms. McIntyre, however, stands resolutely on the fun side, and she trusts creativity will result from any uncomfortable boredom her children experience. When she was growing up, her parents sent her out with friends after breakfast and she was rarely home until dinner.

"I think about our kids, and every moment of their day is planned for them," she said. "I kind of like the idea of it not being planned for them, and being a kid and playing in muck."

A structured summer vacation:

  • maintains learning from the school year, making the transition back to school in September much easier
  • introduces skills and experiences that children don’t have time to do during the school year, from geocaching to writing computer code to learning a new language
  • allows a parent and child to collaborate on a plan of summer learning, and it gives a chance to bond over shared interests
  • minimizes the chances that children will spend their summer vacation watching television and playing video games.

An unstructured vacation:

  • allows children to discover and explore new interests and talents, like drawing or building, so they find their way out of boredom
  • gives children a chance to be outside, riding their bikes, running and engaging in vigorous physical activity – after 10 months of sitting in the classroom
  • allows children to be free from the control of parents and teachers in dictating how they spend their time
  • gives children a chance to play with video games. What’s wrong with that? It’s just another name for building an app.