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What’s the use of summertime (with young children)?

What’s summertime for? There’s a myth that our long summer breaks are a vestige of agricultural rhythms – but how are we to interpret that when we easily misunderstand other “founding acts” for the sake of present-day benefits? How many private industries grow out of this “gap in the public fund”? How do we continue to work (to pay for the daycare) so that we can afford the house (to sleep in) to buy our healthy food to heat up in the microwave (because the oven takes too long)? Perhaps we can accept summertime as a gift. Somehow everyone slows down, and children know this if they are outdoors in the heat and sunshine. Children know what to do with these long days – if we let them.

Because young children are born knowing how to play, they will know what to do in a backyard filled with twigs, sticks, stones, water, and shade. Unlike us, they can fill that space with their imaginary friends and companions, stories, time with a pet, or a family of fairies and gnomes. Yes, these imaginary creatures are important vehicles for our young ones who don’t yet distinguish between “fact” and “fiction” (as if we can). If we let them, our young children will fill an apparently empty space with their imaginations. But we need to get out of their way.

If we have filled their lives with stimulation: “entertainment-parenting”, screens of any sort, constant outings, etc., they will need more time to settle-down to the expectations of a “blank slate” – the backyard. If we have placed our precious one in the center of the world, responding to every request and statement, that too will take time to unwind. If we have few other children to invite over into our backyards, maybe just one or two a week would do – social time with others, but unstructured. How much time to clear the system of overstimulation? At least a month. At that point a young child will not want to come indoors, will be so self-entertaining that you’ll be able to write your masterpiece, will be an active participant in a world of her or his making and less willing to sit in front of a screen. Within a predictable summer routine of time together in the morning, at lunch and at dinner, our children will thrive on less.

Summertime is for our backyard, for lying under a tree and watching the breezes, for listening to the bustle of birds and rodents, and envisioning their homes inside trees, under the ground, and in the branches. What does mama bird yell at her babies? Where does that hole in the ground lead to? Maybe I can build an underground home too. Perhaps there’s a family of moles building more rooms, connecting to a town, collecting for the winter, playing together? There are few limits on how children will imagine the lives of animals in their yards (unless they’ve been exposed to the lies of Disney). These internal narratives will nourish their literary souls and entertain you at the dinner table.

Summertime is for slower time, thoughtful time, time together as families, the backyard.

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Gardening Children: Choosing Environments for our Young Children 

“Plants are improved by cultivation, and men (sic) by education….This education comes to us from nature itself, or from other men, or from circumstances. The internal development of our faculties and of our organs is the education nature gives us; the use we are taught to make of this development is the education we get from other men; and what we learn, your own experience, about things that interest us, is the education of circumstances.” (Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762)

What is a kindergarten? A child’s garden, a garden for children, or a place where adults cultivate their gardens? If we are the gardeners, what should be in the soil? How do we provide places for shade-loving or sun-loving children? How do we make sure roots grow deeply and hidden capacities are not blocked? The metaphor slowly transitions towards a view of all the other environments – or circumstances, as Rousseau would have it – where our children grow: schools, towns, shops, communities, neighbors, society. These are places where we have little to no control. Many of us are concerned about the kinds of values our children will bring home with them once they are outside the home, playing and learning with others. We live in a society with mixed values. How do we ensure that our children will reflect the values of our own families as they learn and grow?

While our children are young we should take time to think about what kinds of experiences and values we want our young children to absorb. If our homes and  our schools are filled with meaningful relationships, work, play, artistic activities, cooperation, the lives of animals and plants, and respect for the needs of others, then healthy foundations for learning will be laid. If families make deliberate efforts to connect with each other on a daily basis around the dinner table or at bath time, bedtime or on the weekend hike, communication will become an important aspect for how a family’s values will be instilled.

Children are built to learn. This is why they are so dependent. It is up to us, the parents, to choose and create some environments for our little ones to flourish and not to shut-down. The multitude of over-stimulating, numbing, adultifying experiences available to our children is evidence that we do not live in a society that values childhood in and for itself. In her latest book, Erika Christakis describes the loss:

“We’ve appropriated their music and books and clothes… but what have we given them in return? Adult gadgets and expectations? Unfortunately, the solution requires more than merely reducing screen time and ponying up more Legos. The small window of early childhood is closing its blinds a little prematurely, it seems. For example, 10 percent of eight-year-old girls are now in the early stages of puberty. Children themselves are leaving the early years behind with a new urgency.” (The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups , xix, Erika Christakis, 2016).

In order to value the experience of childhood, parents and teachers need to have their own developed capacities for thought and feeling. And, we need to value adulthood – the ability to apply life’s lessons in order to guide our children. If we fall prey to the abundant beliefs that “getting older” is something to run away from, we will find ourselves wanting to be like children. This, in turn will make us vulnerable to the superficial trends of competitive culture and consumerism because we have not taken time to develop our capacities as adults. 

Childhood cannot be saved by children. Children up to the early-nineteenth century were “quickly grown” in order to take up their life’s responsibilities depending on class. Historians continue to examine the idea that “childhood” did not emerge until the seventeenth century in Europe, that it did not exist at all during the middle ages. So, what is it about these young ages, say two years to eight, that is so valuable?

Developmental psychology continues to confirm what histories of childhood show us – that these years are malleable. It is a time when capacities are developing, when we can shut down creative thought or nourish it, feed imaginative capacities or not, encourage grit or crumble it, enable entitlement or cultivate gratitude. We can set healthy boundaries for our children to work with or believe they can set them alone; we can share appropriate responsibilities with them or under-evaluate what they are capable of; we can be their guides or be their followers. All of these choices have consequences. We can raise children who have poor boundaries, don’t know right from wrong, do not believe they can learn from adults, and have no sense of what they can offer the world or we can raise children who use their boundaries to know themselves, make mistakes in order to learn the right way to do something, seek adults who have something to teach, and believe they can offer the world something good. Our children all have capacities for renewed visions of a humane future rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

As we begin another year at this “kinder-garten” it is we, the parents and teachers, who are gardening our children, building suitable environments for them to play and work, help and be helped, express themselves and consider the needs of others, learn that they can do something they could not do before, and become our (dependent) helpers. This is no easy task given the demands of our work-lives and the many places we send our children where we have no control. But this conversation may be a good place to begin.