Why I value ‘child-led playful summers’

In Photo: (Clockwise) Me with Melissa Bernstein at her speech in New York this year; Marcus with all his action figures lined up for battle; Meagan sitting in a giant car seat at a baby fair; Meagan goofing around with hats at Marshalls in the United States; Marcus forming a Ravensburger globe puzzle and then pretending it to be his brain; and the kids at a ranch in Hawaii playing with the local donkeys.

KIDS’ time in school is usually structured and strictly supervised. In a more traditional setting, kids would sit in a classroom most of the day listening to teachers lecture the set lesson plan. The measurements of a student’s performance are based on subject grades and good conduct. The traditional school environment, for me, largely builds content for my kids.

But content (reading, math, arts and science) is only one of the 6 C’s in Hirsh-Pasek’s 21st century report card. Our kids also need to build collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creative innovation and confidence to better prepare themselves for their futures.

Summertime is a great time to reinforce these other aspects. And as intimidating as the 6 Cs may seem, I found one word that allows my kids to develop all these aspects at one time—play. I can say a major influence and tool for me is Melissa Bernstein of Melissa & Doug toys. Since I first saw a Melissa & Doug toy in New York when my daughter was barely a year old, I became fascinated on how to inject play in teaching my kids concepts just as Melissa Bernstein did. I haven’t stopped since. I was lucky to have finally met her in my last trip in New York, when I attended her talk on “Take Back Childhood.” Some of my main takeaways from the talk were:

  1. Any expert who has studied childhood and adulthood knows that the happiest people are the ones who have been allowed to play when they were kids. Melissa encouraged puzzle nights, game nights and creating more play experiences at home.
  2. I learned about our kids possibly being part of a “teacup generation,” where a person crumbles at the littlest issue. She points out that play is a great solution because part of play is pursing what brings joy without any goals.
  3. She pointed the rising problem of depression and how, in 2030, it could be one of top sources of disability in the United States. She related her readings on the science of happiness. She said the only two things you need to be happy is being involved in something with purposeful meaning to you, and, second, forming meaningful connections.

I value Melissa Bernstein’s thoughts because it’s aligned with my primary wish for my kids to be happy and fulfilled. During the school year, I see my kids push themselves hard in their activities.  Whether it’s grades, sports or other school contests, they enjoy the work toward a noble purpose. For summer, I want them to feel free to relax, explore and be as quirky as they would like. This is why I promote a “child-led playful summer” for my kids.

A child-led playful summer doesn’t mean my kids plan their summer vacation activities. This for me is providing my kids the avenue to choose to try new things, not because they need to be very good at it, but because they would like to expand their horizon. For example, Meagan, even at 12, wanted to try piano and ballet this year.

It’s also about exposing my kids to new environments that match their personality. When Meagan was 8, I let her stay in the office with the administration manager as an assistant. This was because her teacher told me that she loves helping the teachers run errands. Meagan would follow the office staff to route memos, photocopy papers and arrange them. This allowed her to communicate with older people and gain confidence to run errands beyond school. Since then, every summer she’d look forward to spend time at the office.

Last, and the most important of all, a child-led playful summer is about fun and active free play.

It is about them freely picking, mixing and role-playing all the toys they have. It’s using those same toys to make each of us laugh. It’s about giving them a free hand in planning activities. When Marcus asked for a play date, I told him to do a simple list of invites and the food he would like to serve. A few days before, he even computed how they would fit in the car, so he told me to message the moms not to let the nannies go with his friends anymore. He requested me to extend the time because his planned activities needed more hours.

We especially enjoy fun and active moments when we travel. When we go shopping for clothes, Meagan is the first to play dress up and do comic antics. When we visit parks, I allow the kids to navigate the route. When Meagan joins me for trade fairs, she never fails to find her own fun while I’m doing my work.

Every year, I see my kids growing exponentially, especially in social and emotional skills. I see them taking on more challenges the following school year, confidently, without much fear of winning or losing.

I truly hope that child-led playful summers eventually lead my kids to “adult-led happy lives” in the future.

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