Seattle's Child

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Dad Next Door Give them a stick

Kids bored this summer? Give them a stick and invite them to use their imagination. Photo by Studio Grand Web / iStocl

Dad Next Door: What ever happened to summer?

Maybe your kid just needs a really good stick

I was trying to figure out our summer schedule the other day, so I looked up the academic calendar for our seventh-grader’s school. Her current school year doesn’t end until the middle of June, and the next year begins early in August. All told, she has about seven weeks of summer vacation. I had to check twice to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. Seven weeks. WTF? 

When I was a kid, summer vacation started the first week of June and stretched into the week after Labor Day. It was a full three months—and even then it felt too brief. It made me wonder how we got here, and whether anyone ever asked if it’s a good thing.

At this point, I need to check myself to make sure I’m not indulging in some self-deluded, nostalgic old-guy rant. You know the kind I’m talking about:

Back in the day, we didn’t need all these fancy camps and gizmos and whatnot. All we needed was a stick. You could hit things with it, you could throw it, you could whittle it—and it didn’t cost nothing! These youngsters today are spoiled brats.

The thing is, I don’t feel envious or dismissive of today’s kids—I feel sad for them. When the bell rang at the end of our last day of school, we used to spill out of that building into a vast expanse of unscheduled days, stretching across our kitchen wall calendars on three full pages of freedom and empty squares.

Of course, we didn’t always make the best choices with that freedom. For one thing, we spent way too much time watching TV reruns. And sometimes we just sat on the front steps in the August heat being bored.

“What do you wanna do?”

“I don’t know. Wiffle Ball?”

“Too hot. Anyway, the ball’s stuck in the roof gutter again.”

“Kick the can?”

“Not enough people.”

“Let’s go find a stick.”

The good thing about boredom, though, was that it eventually cured itself. Once we got bored enough, we made something happen. We climbed trees, or rolled down hills until we were too dizzy to stand. We studied ant colonies and mapped out their civilizations. We tossed sticks into the river from the bridge and bet on which one would emerge first on the other side. On sunny days, we burnt our names into scrap wood with magnifying glasses. When it rained, we built dams and canals in the gutters, and sent tree-bark boats careening down the rapids into the deadly Charybdis of the gurgling street drain.

And then there were the creatures. Any tiny thing that crawled, flew, slithered, burrowed or swam in our general vicinity risked capture and imprisonment in our menagerie of mayonnaise jars. At night, we’d collect fireflies and take them to bed with us, filling our bed sheet tents with just enough light to read a comic book or trade baseball cards.

So the question, of course, is how much was all of this worth? Was what we learned in the fields and woods around our neighborhood more valuable than five more weeks of school? Were the endless hours of wading in a creek looking for minnows and crayfish a better education than a week of computer programming camp? In all honesty, I don’t know. But maybe that’s the wrong question.

As we’ve crammed our children’s lives full of information and skills and learning, what we’ve taken from them is time–a very specific kind of time. The scarcest resource in modern childhood is time that isn’t planned by adults. When I look back at my summers as a kid, it isn’t the hours of TV, or the hundreds of trees I climbed, or the thousands of critters I captured that seem so precious–it’s the long, uninterrupted days of deciding for myself what to do, where to go, and how to pass the time until the dinner bell rang. 

I know the world I grew up in doesn’t really exist anymore. Our kids can’t run through the neighbors’ yards as if it was all one big communal playground. They probably don’t have creeks and woods and open meadows they can ride their bikes to. They’re surrounded by video games and smart phones that are far more seductive and addictive than old reruns of Gilligan’s Island. But I can’t help but think that if we just carved out some space for them–a few empty squares on the Google calendar where they could stop and breathe and get bored–they just might grow up a little more resilient, a little more curious, and a little more capable of entertaining themselves. 

That seems like a fair trade for a week of computer camp.

Jeff Lee, Seattle’s Child’s Dad Next Door,  still appreciates the value of a really good stick, in Seattle WA.

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About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.