COVID-19 Gave Our Kids a 1980s Summer and How I Hope to Repeat It


One unexpected blessing of Covid-19 was that last summer looked a lot like the 1980s summer many of us had as kids- the summer of unstructured play.  It was the kind of summer we moms often long for but find nearly impossible to create.  That is why I find myself working to maintain some of the characteristics of a 1980s summer as I start to plan this summer.

When we decided to move back from Arizona in 2018, I could not wait to enjoy summer with our people again. I quickly discovered when I was finally able to begin to “plan” our summer that most activities my friends had signed their kids up for were full. I was able to get my oldest two in a few activities but, in general, our days were pretty open. I was fine with not having a packed schedule because what we were really looking forward to in our first weeks back was reconnecting with friends. 

I thought our lack of activities would allow us more opportunities to reconnect. I imagined lots of unstructured play and gatherings all summer long. At times I felt like I needed a personal assistant to be able to manage all the schedules and find common slots of free time. I remember asking one of our closest friends when our girls could play that week, to which she replied, “We’ve got 45 minutes on Thursday after camp and before another activity. Otherwise we are booked”. Our kids are in preschool and elementary school. How could it be so hard to schedule time for kids to play?   

Americans are notorious for over-scheduling and racing from one activity to the next. Covid-19 forced me to reflect on whether it is really beneficial to do so. I had to examine whether overscheduling gave us what we wanted. Did it make us happier and improve our quality of life? Was it what my kids needed? According to many indexes that rank happiness, quality of life, and more like this and this one, it does not. When this is coupled with research overwhelmingly showing that unstructured play is crucial for important childhood development, it’s easier to not want to go back to being overscheduled. In 2020, I realized I had spent most of the past year feeling frazzled because I had signed my kids up for ALL. THE. THINGS. We spent a lot of time running from one activity to the next. The summer before had taught me that even though we live in a neighborhood full of kids, most spent their days away from home so I turned to overscheduling to compensate.

That is why last summer despite all its worries, cancellations, and changes was in its own way a blessing. There was less running from one commitment to another. This meant more slow mornings, unstructured play with neighbors (our cul-de-sac was filled with kids riding their bikes and playing), fresh air (since it was only safe to congregate outside), and simplicity than I would have allowed had it not been for a pandemic making that choice for me. Our open schedule meant it was easier for the kids to do the things science tells us children need. We had ample time for creek stomping, experimenting, swinging, swimming, late nights catching lightning bugs, and so much more.  

Yes, we missed some of our favorite summer activities but, in general, my family and I found we did not miss the chaos overscheduling creates. As we start to see the glimmer of a return to a more pre-pandemic life, I realize the summer of 2020 will be hard to replicate. I hope there are enough of us who enjoyed the slower and less scheduled summer that we can implement some elements of a 1980s summer moving forward. Admittedly, I’m fine with a bit more activity than last summer. I know there will be some weeks that will feel hectic but I want to find myself being more discerning with what we need to participate in. I hope the cul-de-sac is again filled with kids playing for long periods of time (instead of the fragmented few minutes of play here and there from summers past). If you are anxious about not having a full schedule this summer, I hope you can find peace knowing that by embracing a slower summer, you are in fact giving your child an amazing gift: providing opportunities for the unstructured play that is vital for their development. And I hope you feel the joy of giving your child (and you) a bit of the 1980s type of summer.