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Cutting loose the kids & giving free rein to summer

What’s your favorite childhood memory of summer?
Running barefoot through dewy grass, with tender blades tickling your slick toes? Sitting on a porch at dusk, watching fireflies and listening to the comforting murmur of adults laughing and telling stories? Camping out in the backyard and watching for falling stars?
I have some of those memories, and more — memories of languid summer days spent fishing from a boggy pond bank, catching salamanders in a creek or simply exploring the woods and fields around the house where I grew up.
Mine was a very unstructured childhood, I’m afraid, and I thank heaven for it. Except for a week or so spent at vacation Bible school, I never went to summer camp, never enrolled in a summer reading program, never viewed the long, bright summer as mere preparation time for moving on to the next year and grade in school. Summer was a thing unto itself. It was a fine, shimmering fantasy that beckoned with the last school bell in late May or early June and seemed to stretch endlessly into the hazy future of August.

It was a time to waste time, and I took every advantage of it. While I had chores to do around the house, I was a diligent time-waster, daydreamer and general layabout. Those kinds of summers, I fear, are in danger of disappearing for future generations of kids. We’ve adopted a rather dreary — and unimaginative — prejudice against wasting time, especially among youngsters. These days, parents are apt to feel guilty if they haven’t got their kids’ summers booked up with camps, reading programs, trips to the museum and other exercises.
Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. The “summer slide” in which some students lose ground academically is a real problem, and the programs that address it are useful and necessary. Many children also enjoy time spent at summer camps, whether it’s a day camp that emphasizes arts or sports, or a longer term immersion in math or rocket science. Evaluated on their individual merits, they serve a worthy purpose.
What bothers me, however, is the conventional wisdom that these things are more important than daydreaming, giving the imagination free rein, letting the mind run where it will, like a barefoot child sprinting after a rabbit. It’s part and parcel, I suspect, of a culture that primarily measures success in material terms, that seems bent on directing children toward productive careers and vocations almost from the womb.
It’s rather grim — and soul-shrinking. Our well-intentioned attempts to enrich children’s summers may instead speak more to the impoverishment of adult imaginations.
In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday,” the renowned biologist and essayist E.O. Wilson touched on the importance of letting children waste time — lots and lots of time.

Wilson has a new book, “Letters to a Young Scientist,” in which he talks about having summers “off” as a kid and how that helped shape his intellect and curiosity about life.
Regarding this unstructured time, children “need a lot,” Wilson said. “They need a lot.”
Elaborating on the idea, he was even more emphatic about the importance of giving kids freedom to engage the world on their own terms.
Here’s what he said: “I would say that, generally speaking, if you have a bright, inquisitive kid — and very few are not innately that way — and you are given a choice of two months of summer camp with advance preparation in various subjects with a college horizon in mind, between that and cutting them loose in the woods or a very interesting natural environment — cutting them loose not entirely, so you know where they are — take the latter, for heaven’s sake. It’s the latter where they will dream and begin to form in their own minds those ideas, those conceptions, those misperceptions to be corrected that make up a strong mental ability and character.”
You don’t necessary need daily access to woods or wilderness to accomplish this. Sometimes, doodling with a sketch pad or soaring on a swing set can accomplish the same thing. Or simply sitting in the shade, pondering the shapes of clouds or the flight of evening swallows. There’s no formula, no instruction booklet, no set design for engaging in a childhood summer. It’s a free-form activity, without numbers to paint by or a well-marked path.
You just have to do it — or, I suppose, not do it. So get out there and do something totally unproductive, kids.
Time’s awasting.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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