Summertime: Exploring Interests

By Devon MacEachron, Ph.D.
AT A GLANCE Summer can—and should--be a well-deserved break from the stress-filled school year • It’s an ideal time for your child to have some fun while discovering, exploring, and cultivating personal interests

Summer is almost upon us raising the age-old question of what your child should/could do with two to three months of free time.

For many the school year is jam-packed with activities. Even though we worry our children are over-scheduled, and we’re harried and exhausted chauffeuring them from activity to activity, we still do it. We don’t want them to miss out on any important activity, be it sports, music lessons, academic support, or play dates. It’s all worthwhile, plus everyone else seems to be in the same place—deep into scheduled school-year activities.

Which brings us to summer. Those lazy hazy days of summer. Should you even schedule anything for your child? I’m not sure “schedule” is the word I’d choose, but I do advise that parents try to “plan” or “craft” a rewarding summer for their child.

What would this look like?

Make it fun and interest-driven

Summer is usually not the time to work on improving weak academic skills, unless the child is far behind and the time is really needed to get them back on track. Even then, too much focus on academics can be bad for the child (unless that’s what they enjoy doing). They could burn-out, lose motivation and a love of learning altogether. So if you do need to get some academic skill tutoring done over the summer, be sure to plan fun, interest-driven things around it.

Reflect your child’s genuine interests

These are not necessarily those offered at the local day camp or the activities your child’s friends are pursuing. When my children were young I tried enrolling them in various day camps, but they’d come home miserable. It took me a while to realize that they didn’t like and weren’t good at sports, and they were more interested in things outside the scope of these programs.

It takes a self-aware parent to put their own preferences and fears aside, and listen to what their child is saying.

Most children don’t actually say: “These are my interests and I’d like to do x, y, and z over the summer to pursue them.” It takes observation, analysis, and reflection on your part as a parent to discern what “lights your child’s fire.”

I had some parents in my office recently who asked whether they should hire an academic skills tutor to solidify their child’s math skills over the summer and/or enroll their child in a local camp. The child was not behind in math. She didn’t love organized activities where she was made to do what someone else wanted her to do when they wanted her to do it. She liked to explore what she was interested in when she wanted to. She was really interested in nature. We decided the best thing would be to take her to the beach and explore tide pools, look for frogs in the forest, and go to the library to study books about what she discovers.

Provide some structure

Some children are self-motivated. When left to their own devices they’ll find something they’re interested in doing, and will be productive at pursuing it. But most aren’t. So some scaffolding is in order. Not over-scheduling, but scaffolding. I suggest advance planning to help your child pursue his or her interests. But first you have to know what they are.

Maybe your child has expressed clear interests from an early age. Or maybe you don’t have any idea where to start.

If you don’t know what she’s interested in, you can directly ask her in a non-judgmental way what she’d be interested in trying or doing more of, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, and animation to film making. You can also just reflect on how your child chooses to spend her free time, the books that absorb her, the museum exhibits that engage her, and any other clue you can find to what intrigues her.

Find appropriate resources

Once you know what your child’s interests are, be creative thinking of ways to help her pursue them. Maybe there is a structured camp, or maybe you’ll need to source books, art supplies, science supplies, videos, a mentor, or plan outings. Find books and do internet searches to learn more about her interest areas. Discover topic-specific magazines, websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Seek out lectures, conferences, webinars, and other special events. Uncover special interest clubs and organizations such as star-watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, and speech-making clubs. Ask experts for advice. My son was interested in building and engineering. I encouraged him to enter a Lego competition, enrolled him in an engineering course at Johns Hopkins CTY, and helped him find a summer internship with an engineering firm. My daughter was interested in marine biology. We found a lot of books and videos to watch, enrolled her in multiple marine biology-specific camps, and I accompanied her to a 6-week dolphin research project when she was 12 that required the interns be over 18 to participate (arguing that my presence brought our average age well above the 18-year old threshold).

Allow for plenty of downtime

I do think it’s good to have a plan and be purposeful about helping your child pursue her interests. But I also think it’s important to let kids experience what it feels like to have to figure out how to entertain themselves. Time to slow down and explore may help them find new interests and reflect on what makes them happy. Boredom can be a good thing. Because they are so used to being scheduled, children today may lack the resources, experience, and discipline to cope with boredom. Being bored can promote daydreaming, which allows us to make new, innovative connections. Boredom can be a catalyst for humor, fun, reflection, creativity and inspiration.

Summer is a wonderful time with so many opportunities and possibilities open to our children. Make it a truly rewarding time for your child by actively helping her pursue the things she is genuinely interested in while allowing for important down time.

And have fun!

Devon MacEachron is a psychologist who specializes in comprehensive psycho-educational assessments. This article is adapted with the author’s permission from Dr. Devon’s Blog.

Related Smart Kids Topics