Summer is a nostalgic season for parents like Noell Hyman. Ask her about the difference between her childhood summers and those of her children, and her voice grows sentimental as she tells of striking contrasts.
"When I was a kid, the mantra was, 'Go outside and get some sun,' " says Mrs. Hyman of Mesa, Ariz. "We played outside all day, riding bikes, exploring the neighborhood." Today her own three children have far less independence. "It's more me telling them what we're doing. Our days are scheduled with structured activities, and we spend a lot more time together as a family, instead of the kids spending the days with their friends."
Across the country in recent decades, cultural changes have produced a profound shift in how children spend vacation time. More working parents, greater concerns about safety, and the allure of computers, electronic games, and television is keeping more children indoors.
Although about 10 million children attend some type of camp, according to the American Camp Association, many others are likely to spend more sedentary summers than their parents did. Neighborhoods that once echoed with youthful voices are often eerily quiet, except for birds and barking dogs.
"Parents are very busy, and outside play takes a lot of supervision," says Mary Rivkin, associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "We're also afraid about being outside because of strangers, the sun, and insects. Inside seems much safer."
Even suburban sprawl has changed summer activities. "Kids always played in fields or forests that were close at hand," Professor Rivkin says "Now there's less free space."
The result is what she calls "the extinction of experience – kids aren't learning stuff firsthand." She adds, "It's silly for us to think we don't need to be in the outdoors more."
One father determined to give his three children an old-fashioned summer similar to those he and his wife remember is Dave Taylor of Boulder, Colo. That means no TV, video games, or movies.
"It works great," he says. "They're out riding their bikes, skateboarding, playing on the swings, and going to friends' houses. We believe there's great value in kids being bored. Boredom spawns imaginative play. I've seen it work with my kids time and again, whether they pick up a book, turn their bed into a fort, or visualize our dogs as dragons they must defend themselves against."
Whatever kind of summer families prefer, parents face a challenge in keeping children busy. "There is more pressure for today's parent to create activities and schedules," says Anne Gold, who works at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and is the mother of two teenage sons. She remembers filling her own days as a child, spending time "lying on our backs finding shapes in clouds," taking nature walks, catching lightning bugs, and gazing at stars.
Children's friendships have also changed. Hyman recalls going outside and just knocking on friends' doors. Now people are often not home, and her children's friends live far away. That requires time on the road.
"Every get-together has to be scheduled and planned," says Karrie Heartlein of Galesburg, Ill. "Who will drive? How long will you be gone? What should you bring? Will a parent be there? It seems almost too much work sometimes, and so contrary to my growing up, when I would just yell in the door, 'Hey, Mom! I'm going to Sara's!' "
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."
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."