The Summer Camp Conundrum

Sending your kids to camp may not be the best way to keep them active in the warm months


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There’s still snow on the ground in Minnesota, but summer is already streaming into my mailbox and overflowing from my kids’ backpacks. It’s time to sign up for camp.

I struggle with this every year, not just because the deadlines are so out of sync with the slush piled up next to my driveway, but also because I try to strike a balance in my children’s schedules between adventure and boredom. I’m a firm believer that long summer days are supposed to lack structure, and that kids need to have space and time to make up their own fun. They need opportunities to be bored. Out of boredom comes creativity and self confidence that might not always come from being part of an organized team or summer camp.

Plus, the more free time kids have, the easier it is for parents to get off the sidelines and get in on the action, too. I’d much rather play with my kids than spend my summer carpooling them to sports camp and parking myself on the bleachers while they practice. A parent echoed this sentiment recently after attending one of my teen-parent yoga classes. “It’s so nice to do something physical with my son instead of just cheering him on from the side,” she told me. “I used to do classes with my kids when they were toddlers, but now it happens less and less as they get older.”

Our family isn’t foregoing all summer programs; we signed our boys up for little league and basketball camps. But aside from that, we’re keeping it to a minimum. We plan to leave plenty of free time in our schedule—unstructured play time, where there is no rushing to practice or games and where the rules are left up to the imagination.

As the weather gets warmer, try these five tips for setting your kids—and yourself—free this season.

Get outside with your children and wander your neighborhood parks, trails, and open spaces. Go with no agenda except to show up and play together for a chunk of time, without deadlines or expectations.

Rather than leaving the teaching to a coach, play sports with your kid. Help your young ‘uns gather a group of neighbors for an impromptu game—basketball, baseball, tag, whatever. You might find yourself rediscovering your own love for the sport in the process.

Take your kids out on a bike ride, a run, or a canoe trip down a local river. The benefit of these activities is that they’re lifelong pursuits. Chances are that 20 years from now you won’t still be cheering on your son’s baseball team, but you can still get together for a hike or a sea-kayaking trip. Don’t wait until they outgrow team sports to teach them that not all physical activity revolves around competition.

Take time to travel with your kids. It doesn’t need to be ambitious. Take a road trip, go camping, book a long weekend some place you’ve never been, or even just pitch a tent in the backyard. Even a slight change of scenery and tweak in your daily routine can give you all a healthy new perspective.

While you may find yourself standing on the side lines cheering your kid on from time to time this summer, make sure the reverse is also true. Sign yourself up for a race or some other athletic endeavor and invite your kids to cheer you on. You’ll feel empowered and inspired, and they’ll learn that being active and strong isn’t just for kids.

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