Summer and the Value of Structure

summerBy: Jennifer Farley Psy.D.

If you’re on social media, you may have chuckled at recent posts depicting the difference between teachers and students at the beginning versus the end of the school year – with all of them involving anticipation for summer’s reign to begin. Summer is The Quintessential Break for our kids and their educators, and it should be – it’s good for kids to have a nice break from the structure of school to be able to enjoy the opportunities that a no-school summer offers.

That being said, if you ask most kids what they are especially excited about for summer, “Sleeping in,” tends to be a common answer, especially for teenagers. (It is also the response that elicits the most sighs and eye rolls from their parents.)  Most parents are happy to have their kids experience a more relaxed schedule in the summers.  This is especially the case for parents of children who struggle with any number of cognitive or learning challenges that make the school year much more difficult and tiresome.  Yet, as with many things in life, it’s important to maintain a healthy balance, in this case, with having enough structure without being overscheduled..  What many parents may not realize is that after the first 3 or 4 weeks of summer, kids who experience the most radical shift between the structure of their school schedule to a completely unstructured summer often complain most of boredom.  I’ve heard quite a few of these children and adolescents say that they wish they could go back to school well before the start of the next school year.

There are many families who struggle with the idea of being “too scheduled” in the summertime. Setting aside the concept of being “overscheduled” for a second, there is actually quite a bit of value to having structure and routine to our days.  Having a routine helps us plan and prepare for what comes next.  Without this, we risk not being able to have some predictability and readiness to our days. Without some predictability, we risk feeling more chaotic and disorganized.  And leading a disorganized, unplanned lifestyle brings the risk of becoming more anxious and/or depressed.  Children as young as 2 can experience comfort knowing that after a good afternoon nap they’ll be able to play again.  Four-year olds ask their parents at bedtime what they’ll be doing the next day.  Even as adults, we benefit from knowing what is coming so that we can plan ahead for it.

Have you ever noticed a difference between how you (or others) function during the week compared to the weekends? Most of us who work or send our children off to school during the week have what is called “external structure.”  We know what time we have to wake up, what sequence of tasks we need to do before we leave, and we know what time we have to leave the house to get to school and/or work on time.  When at work, we know what is expected of us and what our responsibilities are. At the end of the work day, we leave with thoughts in mind of what comes next for what is planned that evening. There is much more inherent structure built into those days.  In contrast, weekends offer the opportunity for us to guide our own tasks (providing there are no athletic games or meetings or birthday parties to take our children to).  People who struggle with initiating tasks or motivating themselves to get tasks done all too often hit Sunday evening with a somber feeling that they did not accomplish most (if any) of what they intended. It can leave adults with a sense that they wasted their time, because they have nothing to show for their weekend. This same experience can be felt among children in the summer.

Think about what “boredom” looks like for kids: they may sleep in bed late, they may sprawl on the couch with no intellectually-stimulating activity, and they look “lazy” to parents by showing no initiation for any physically-active tasks. Now, picture what “sadness” or “loneliness” or any other negative feeling “looks like” for kids.  They can be quite similar to what kids experience when they are bored. Too much boredom leads to emotional discomfort, and this can lead one to lack creativity, to feel unproductive, and to experience poor confidence. These experiences can then lead one to feel more irritable, down, restless, and even anxious.

It is healthy to have some semblance of plans and structure during the summer. A family vacation offers the excitement and anticipation of a journey to look forward to. For the day-to-day routine, many parents send their kids to day camps (especially working parents), while some send their kids to a sleep-away camp for a week or two. Some families hire a nanny or a babysitter to watch their children and to take them places.  Some families have a parent who can stay at home with their children.  In any of these instances, what is healthiest is when there is a routine by which kids wake up at a certain time and engage in a morning routine.  Structure can be in the form of whatever activity is intended that day, such as swimming in the neighborhood pool, going to a movie, or having a play date with friends.  What helps is that there is something to plan for that day. Adolescents who are taking care of themselves function even better when given structure in the form of expectations – if even to complete a designated chore first before enjoying whatever leisure activity the child hopes to do. Often times, parents get more compliance from kids who agree to complete a chore first before being allowed to engage in a fun activity, such as with their friends. Ending the day with a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction of having engaged in an activity leads one to feel more rested, physically and emotionally.

Being “overscheduled” can lead to stress on the entire family, and it does not allow for any rest time. It is good for children and adolescents to enjoy the feeling that comes with “lounging around” – especially since so many miss out on that opportunity during the school year when managing responsibilities associated with academics and extracurricular activities.   Being overscheduled also can dampen one’s creativity and ideas for how to spend down time.

The key is balance: allow for a mix of planned activities with some unscheduled leisure time by which children and adolescents can choose what they would like to do. Many children may balk at the idea of having any expectations upon them, but the structure and predictability they gain from it offers many more psychological and social benefits than having no plans at all.