For more children, less time for outdoor play
Busy schedules, less open space, more safety fears, and lure of the Web keep kids inside.
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Some long-ago summer experiences can shock today's youth. As a child in Stoneham, Mass., in the 1950s and '60s, Neil Gussman rode his bike to Boston when he was 8. "When I told my kids that I rode to Boston one day, they could not conceive of doing something like that," says Mr. Gussman of Lancaster, Pa. "I think they suspected my mother of neglect." Noting that his four children are attending camps this year, he says, "My kids and I grew up on different planets."Skip to next paragraph
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For working parents, summers present particular challenges. To give them more time at home, some companies are beginning to offer "summer friendly" work hours. An emerging program, informally known as accumulated time, pays employees 80 percent of their salary all year, then allows them to take a chunk of time off in the summer to be with their children.
"It's important that they have some hang-around time with their families," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York. "It's important for kids to just sit outside and read a book, or for a preschooler to watch a bug crawl from here to there without having to rush off to somewhere else."
When Ms. Galinsky asked hundreds of children about quality time with families, many said they wanted busy parents to pay more attention. They also longed for unscheduled time and unstructured activities with their families.
Last year, Patricia Harman learned the importance of giving her children, now 11, 12, and 15, a chance to relax. They spent so much time at camp that they felt they had missed their summer. This year she cut some planned activities. She still expects them to read the newspaper at least once a week. "I want them to realize that there is a very large world out there that transcends their world," says Ms. Harman, editor in chief of a trade magazine in Columbia, Md. She also asks them to read at least two books. Her 15-year-old has chosen Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."
Thanks in part to efforts like Hartman's, summer reading programs are "thriving," says Ellen Fader, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. As one example, the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Ore., hopes to sign up 60,000 children and teenagers.
Whatever the losses from one generation to the next, nostalgia for a simpler past has its limits. Hyman sees gains as well, explaining that most mornings she and her children go biking or hiking. "While it would be nice to send the kids out to 'go get some sun,' especially since it would give me a little peace and quiet, I don't mind giving up that privilege. Not only are my children safer, we are a closer family. My kids play together more, and with me," she says.
Other parents who recall summers spent running through sprinklers, playing hide-and-seek, and shooting baskets also appreciate the values and the joy their children find in structured activities.
Connie Becker Mitchell of St. Charles, Mo., let her two sons, 6 and 9, choose from a list of options. They picked a two-week summer academy, a day camp, a magic camp, and chess and acting classes. Both boys also take swimming lessons.
"Whose childhood was 'better'?" she asks. "I don't know. I look back fondly on mine and hope they do the same."