Boomers Enjoyed Unstructured Summer Play

If there is one thing Mister Boomer misses terribly from his early boomer days, it is having a summer off from school. As an adult, responsibilities to family and work take precedent, so time in the summer (or lack thereof) becomes more precious as he ages. Decades later, as he ponders those wonderful summer days, he realizes what he misses is not only the time out of the classroom, but the sheer freedom of it all. A week away from the work desk cannot hold a candle to two-plus months of unstructured play.

Once the last school bell had rung, children were free from the commands of teachers. Parents not only allowed this freedom, but encouraged it. In fact, most boomers will tell you their parents did not know what their kids did during the day. As long as they were home for dinner, parents did not want to know about their children’s summer activities unless they came home bleeding, or escorted by a police officer.

We were free to keep ourselves busy. Sometimes that meant inventing games, other times it was exploring, while others, still, it meant a time to be mischievous. The point was, children were left to their own devices to work things out. In Mister Boomer’s case, the neighborhood group included kids from age 7 to 14. Though the older kids often took the lead in deciding what to do, the entire group was able to voice their opinions or offer suggestions. In this group dynamic, it was not unusual for strange games or competitions to appear, with rules being concocted on the fly. It also meant that on occasion, there might be some blood, usually because of some foolhardy attempt at one thing or another, more than fighting.

Virtually every child development study these days points to a lessening in the amount of unstructured play time compared to that of our boomer days. Consequently, the debate over structured play versus unstructured play has been going on for decades since the boomer generation. Every boomer grandparent is aware of the often grueling schedule their grandchildren keep during the summer, being ushered from one practice to another, one structured activity to another. Mister Boomer makes no claims to the authoritative reasoning behind such discussions, other than the fact he grew up as a boomer.

In 2016, Michael Patte, professor of teaching and learning and a child life specialist, released a white paper called, From Pick Up Games to Play Dates –- The Decline of Child-Initiated, Unstructured Play and the Rise of Backseat Children. The good professor summarizes the reasons for the decline in unstructured play as:

• Safety concerns
• Increased time spent at school
• Desire by parents for childhood to be a time of resume building for college
• Increase of structured play activities

He goes on to say that unstructured play is key to proper balance in childhood development. Unstructured play assists in:

• Social competency
• Self-discipline
• Aggression control
• Problem solving
• Conflict resolution

Surely we boomers were not conscious of such teaching moments, but Mister B feels that when you think back, you will recall times when that is exactly what was occurring in the fields, playgrounds and streets of our youth during summer vacations.

Boomers in the 1960s and ’70s advocated for more freedom of all types for everyone. Self-expression was a big part of that freedom. Could that desire have been rooted in the way we were allowed to spend our summer vacations — in total and complete unstructured play?

Do you think about unstructured play these days, and the freedom you had as a kid during summer months, boomers?

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