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Making summer plans for your child? What you must include

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 22, 2012 11:16 AM

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It's that time of year again. The end of the school year is within sight, and parents are furiously making plans for that long stretch of summer ahead. I'm doing it, too -- we've got plans for swim camp and art classes. But as parents make these plans, there's something that's crucial to include:

Time to play.

As you map out the summer, it's really important to build in regular unscheduled time for kids to just, well, play. Kids have a real downtime problem these days: they aren't getting enough of it.

It's easy to understand how it happens. We feel like our kids are happy when they are busy. We want them to be exposed to all sorts of different activities; we want them to learn. Sports teams give kids exercise, which is great -- and things like lessons and sports can add to a kid's "resume" -- which, in the increasingly competitive landscape of college applications, can feel crucial. Plus, lots of parents work -- summer camps are often necessary for child care.

But here's the thing: kids need to be able to just play. It's important enough that in 2006 the American Academy of Pediatrics actually put out a report to remind parents and doctors of the importance of play. The report points out that play is important for:

  • Normal development. It's through play that children strengthen their imagination muscles, and through play they learn something called "executive function", which are skills like negotiation, problem-solving, collaboration and delayed gratification.
  • Physical health. Active play is one of the very best ways to keep kids healthy and ward off obesity.
  • Mental health. Kids, like all of us, need some time to relax and de-stress. Without it, they are at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
  • Learning. Kids who get regular breaks to play learn more than those who don't.
  • Building family relationships. Through play, you get to know and appreciate each other better, have more opportunities for communication -- and make memories together.

So don't schedule every moment of your child's day with lessons and activities and sports. Leave some blank time for them to do what they want (make sure the TV and computer aren't on the whole time). Encourage active play and imaginative play -- although curling up with a book is good too. And join in (we are big fans of the game Apples to Apples Junior at our house -- check it out).

If you need to have your child in summer camp full-time for childcare reasons, look for a program that has some unscheduled play time -- and make sure that there is downtime in the evenings and on weekends.

Remember that there is more to life than grades and resumes -- and know that the benefits of downtime outweigh any benefits your child might get from squeezing in that extra activity. It's good for your child -- and good for your family.

So this summer, don't be afraid to spend time doing nothing -- it may end up being some of the best time of the summer.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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