Parents shouldn't feel like they are required to put their kids through rigorous summer schooling to make up for quarantine school's curriculum. There are plenty of ways to keep the learning going outside of traditional academics.

By Kristi Pahr
May 18, 2020
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As the school year and our first semester of virtual learning begins to wind down, many parents are wondering how their children's education will stack up when school resumes in the fall. Distance learning has put the onus of educating children on parents and most of us are worried that we aren't doing a great job and our kids will backslide and lose most of what they'd gained earlier in the school year. Some school districts have made the decision to extend their school years into the summer months but, for those whose school year ends this month, parents might feel pressured to continue pushing virtual learning throughout the summer to help prevent backslide and to make up for time lost to stay-home orders and school closures, but experts say that's unnecessary. Here's why.

Kids Need a Break

Things have definitely been tough for parents, but many kids have been majorly struggling with all the changes caused by the coronavirus. Pivoting from traditional classroom environments to online learning has been challenging, and being kept apart from their friends and vital social interactions has compounded the stress. Allowing kids to enjoy unstructured time over the summer provides an opportunity for children to work through all the stress that built up throughout the spring and start school in the fall clear-headed.

"While parents want their children to excel, overworking their kids can be counterproductive," says Steve Canipe, Ed.D., associate dean in Walden University’s Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership.

It's important for parents to remember that learning doesn't always come from books–learning should take place whenever and wherever possible, according to Dr. Canipe. "Learning should not be limited to books or the internet. Watching bubbles form when doing the dishes can be a science lesson," he explains. "The idea is to get the child to think beyond a textbook way. This allows the child to experience the lesson before learning it."

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Importance of Unstructured Time

A lot of emphasis has been placed on routines and schedules as we manage virtual learning. Providing a framework for the day helps children cope with stress and anxiety and allows them to know what to expect as the day progresses. But built into those schedules and routines should be ample time for unstructured play–a chunk of time dedicated to allowing children to do what they want.

"For children and adults, constant structure is taxing for the brain and for creating interest," says Dr. Canipe. "Unstructured time allows interest pathways to form. As adults, it is important for us to provide structured support. We must utilize our children’s interests to help them learn. For example, if your child is expressive and enjoys using their imagination, you can encourage them to write a play and perform these roles on a private YouTube channel for family members to enjoy."

By giving our kids unstructured time, we are essentially giving them the gift of discovery. With ample free time, like that afforded over summer break, kids have the freedom to explore interests and dive-in to those interests without the hindrance of an hour by hour schedule or structured lesson plans and assignments to distract them.

Tips for Unstructured Time

Grade School Kids

For young and elementary-aged children, providing quality unstructured time can be as simple as setting out an array of toys or art supplies to capture their attention. Changing out toys and supplies regularly can help keep their interest alive and reduce the possibility of children becoming bored with materials once the novelty has worn off.

Open-ended toys, like blocks, construction toys, and dolls or action figures, toys that don't have an end-point, allow children to use their imaginations and be creative with their play. While toys with a definite endpoint, like board or card games, can be fun, they are self-limiting, while open-ended toys can help encourage children to use items in unconventional ways.

Teens and Tweens

Like younger kids, tweens and teens also benefit from ample unstructured time. Unlike younger kids, tweens and teens are more capable of independence and need less management during their unstructured time. Sure, they'll want to spend a good deal of it using screens, but during times of social distancing, screens are their only link to the social lives they left behind when schools closed and are vital to maintaining social connectedness.

Tweens and teens will likely want to spend more time alone than their younger siblings, and that's fine. Encouraging them to spend their time engaged in pursuits that capture their interest–art, practicing an instrument, even creating mods for their favorite video games–is a great way to keep them learning over the summer while skipping the rote learning of the school year.

Now, if you're excited about lesson plans and your kid doesn't want to stop studying throughout the summer, by all means, keep on learning. But if they're burned out (and we know you're burned out), play is important. Free time is important. School is also important, but kids need breaks, especially during stressful times. Let them hang out, let them play, even let them be bored so they can learn how to entertain themselves. Schools will start back soon enough and the catch-up work will begin. Until then, kids deserve a summer break.

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