Summer is almost upon us and as we emerge from pandemic restrictions, we’re all thinking about what we want—and don’t want—to do, for us and for our children. Recognizing that different families have experienced the pandemic very differently—from tragic loss to inconvenience—I have some thoughts about summer for our young people.
I would begin by asking all family members what they can’t wait to do; what they can’t wait to stop doing; what, if anything, they view as positive aspects of the last 18 months. Use the answers to these questions to inform summer plans—and even the months and years ahead. For example, most families have spent more time together. If you have appreciated that opportunity, build in family-time now and going forward. Many people have also spent more time outside. Being in nature improves our mood, reduces anxiety, and may even help with ADHD, so it will be good to find ways to continue enjoying the out-of-doors. Last spring, when everything shut down, everyone’s schedules, perforce, freed up. This was very healthy—students got more sleep and families spent more time together. Resist the temptation to return to our pre-pandemic frenetic lives. I completely understand the drive to involve children in activities, but children’s healthy development also requires downtime—time to relax and recharge, to create space for their imaginations, to spend time with family. Balance is key and summer is a great time to hold onto the slower pace and set in place plans to maintain it as the new school year begins.
Many families have gone months, often well more than a year, without seeing grandparents and even aunts, uncles, and cousins in-person. Vaccinations have made such visits possible again and many people have been able to see each other recently. Don’t stop there, though. Make time this summer for extended family visits.
Think about socializing in general. Regardless of your practices during the pandemic, your daughter should spend time with friends this summer. Again, how you do this depends on people’s comfort levels, but easing back into socializing will be particularly important for those who have been relatively isolated. Work together with your daughter to construct a plan for social reengagement. And if what she really wants to do is hang with her friends at the pool, let her.
Many people started new hobbies or pursued existing ones during the pandemic. These are often activities your child really loves. Indeed, in my lunches with seniors, they observed nostalgically how much they enjoyed this aspect of quarantine. Maybe your daughter bakes, makes jewelry or soap or candles; maybe she learned how to sew and has her eye on a line for PUNCH; maybe she knits. Maybe she has discovered a fascination with birds or insects. Maybe she paints or draws. Maybe she writes poetry or songs or draws anime or makes movies. Maybe she loves playing her instrument, acting, dancing, or singing. Maybe she has a sport that gives her great pleasure and satisfaction. Maybe engaging in her community or working for a cause she believes in is her passion. Maybe she just loves to read.
We have hobbies purely because they provide enjoyment. Engaging in them, we often achieve “flow,” psychologist Mihaly Ccikszentmihalyi’s term for the state “when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” It’s the state when you lose track of time because you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing. Encouraging your child to find an activity that meets this criteria for her has countless benefits, including making her happier and even providing a sense of purpose. Summer offers a great time to indulge our hobbies or for your daughter to discover one. Eighth graders may want to build on their passion projects, while girls who participated in Penn’s Social Innovators Program may want to take their projects to another level. Just remember, though, that these activities should be pursued for their own sakes—not because they will achieve some goal.
We can’t ignore video games, especially since people definitely achieve flow when playing them. Video games have positive qualities and I would not recommend prohibiting your daughter from playing them if this is something she loves to do. What I would do, however, is work out a plan with her that ensures that she takes part in other activities, especially outdoor activities—activities that don’t require a screen, and activities that include in-person interaction.
Whether your daughter loves to read or not, I would encourage her to spend time pleasure reading. It doesn’t matter what she reads; it’s just good that she does. Joining some kind of reading activity can encourage reluctant readers while being fun for enthusiastic ones, whether it’s a public library reading program, a book club with friends, or even sharing a read with a parent or grandparent. Carve out time free from distractions and have her choose a favorite comfortable place, inside or outside, and leave her alone to enter into whatever world the book might take her to.
For me, one of the more dispiriting aspects of the pandemic has been our limited physical views. Now is the time to think about expanding our geographic boundaries and do some traveling. Perhaps visit family (see above). Take advantage of the many opportunities within a short distance, whether visiting the museums that are reopening, going to the beach or hiking in one of the many nearby state and national parks. Some people are also planning to go farther afield for extended periods. The nature of a trip doesn’t really matter. The idea is to get a much-needed change of scenery.
What I would not do is enroll your daughter in summer academic programs (except, obviously, those that are required) unless she genuinely wants to take classes for pure enjoyment and intellectual curiosity (I have an advisee who truly loves doing chemistry problems; taking summer classes for someone like that is fine). Because we are not concerned about learning loss in our students, remedial summer work is unnecessary. Indeed, taking a break from schoolwork will benefit your daughter’s learning come fall.
I’m also sure that I don’t need to remind you that even if she has been in school daily since the fall, she has been spending a lot of time on-screen. I would work together to limit screen time over the summer. Engaging in activities where she achieves flow helps with this. So does being outside. When she is socializing, encourage her and her friends and fellow family members to put aside phones and focus on each other. Let young people be bored so they have to use their imaginations and ingenuity and not just watch YouTube videos or Netflix, or consume social media. To this end, you might look into Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She makes a provocative argument for turning away from the purposely addictive nature of tech and engaging instead with place and with one another. In the process, she encourages us to redefine productivity.
This has been a long year-plus, during which everyone has experienced at least some degree of stress and anxiety. We all—adults and young people alike—need time to recover. In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to the psychologist Lisa Damour for her advice. She said, “Kids desperately need a restorative summer.” So let them have fun; let them be bored; let their imaginations run free; let them engage in activities they love simply for the sake of enjoyment. And try to do the same yourself. I know I can’t wait for a lazy afternoon with a good book or a leisurely dinner with friends.