When I remember childhood summer afternoons, I remember sun and water. Wet grass squelching between my toes as I skipped through sprinklers in the yard. Chalky sunblock on my shoulders, making water bead like pearls on my skin. Wrinkled fingers and waterlogged ears from countless hours in the pool. Barefoot galumphing through mountain streams, listening to the chatter of songbirds, gazing at golden sunlight streaming through leaves.
Mostly, I remember loving it all. I loved the blaze of sun on skin; the cold shock of plunging into deep water and rising, weightless, to break the surface; the beauty and solitude of meandering creeks. In summer, I learned to love things that I chose for myself, not that were chosen for me, as most of childhood is chosen for us. The long, sweet leisure-days of summer formed my soul.
Summer is a sacred season, for in summertime children develop habits of leisure that last a lifetime. In Happiness and Contemplation, Joseph Pieper writes, “Repose, leisure, peace, belong among the elements of happiness. If we have not escaped from harried rush, from mad pursuit, from unrest, from the necessity of care, we are not happy.” This is true for children and adults. During summer, we clear space for children to pursue holy leisure that shapes the course of their lives.
That sounds lovely, right? As parents, however, we know that left to themselves, most children will retire to the darkest corner of the house from May to September with an iPad, a bottle of Mountain Dew, and a giant box of Cheez-its. This is the path of least resistance, and it is beguiling. After all, we muse, our kids have worked hard, and deserve down time. When I feel tempted to indulge these inclinations, I remember Plato: “the goal of an education is to love what is worth loving.”
Wholesome leisure will refresh and renew our children; soulless leisure will deplete and depress them
Mindless screen time and junk food are not worth loving, so they should not define summer leisure. Wholesome leisure will refresh and renew our children; soulless leisure will deplete and depress them. Summer is an opportunity to invite children to participate in redemptive leisure, which is an extension of our pursuits throughout the school year. The meaningful work of summer is to nurture habits of holy leisure in our homes.
How do we cultivate wholesome recreation? I propose emphasizing four elements of holy leisure during summer break: habits, work, books, and nature. These four elements provide a framework for summer days.
Toward the end of the school year, I evaluate our habits of the academic year in light of the goal of cultivating meaningful leisure. Summer should not redirect the rigor of the school year. Instead, summer is a season of refreshment, so we jettison many habits. Yet some we keep: family breakfast, morning prayer and Bible, math, piano practice, reading aloud, sketching, chores. For most families, routines thrive during mornings, nurturing order while building anticipation for creative summer afternoons. The simple shift of being outside for morning routines can be a delight. Consider creating a checklist of everything children must do daily before they can disappear into the sunshine.
Summer provides an opportunity to invest in productive work. Last week my children asked for a movie, but we insisted that they build a chicken coop with us instead, with much hilarity. Meaningful work expands participation in the world. During summer, put children to work alongside you to contribute to the family culture and nurture relevant skills.
Another form of work is academic. Some families include academics as part of summer culture. In our family, we continue a relaxed academic schedule, subject to gleeful cancellation in the event of sudden inspiration for a picnic. We continue with math, music, commonplacing, and something in which each child has struggled. Over the summer I can tutor more intensely in a particular subject, which relieves pressure in the school year.
Every year, books and nature anchor our summer leisure. We read aloud for hours. Summer is a magical season, so we read magical stories; Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Summer is alive with color and light, so we read nature stories; Swallows and Amazons, Farmer Boy, The Secret Garden. We read adventure stories, poetry, mythology, fairy tales, folk tales. We keep overflowing baskets of field guides and nature books. It is good for kids to read every day, and if we can combine nature with stories, that is even better. To that end, my children have each claimed a “reading branch” in an old, knotty pine tree along the dirt road in front of our house.
If one thing will seal summer as sacred in the hearts of our children, it is wonder at the created world. Kids will remember sun and water, the smell of lilacs, the way Aspen leaves grow from the top down. They go outside to climb trees, swim, play basketball, ride bikes, pick wildflowers. We provide access to tools for imaginative play: gardening tools, roller skates, soccer balls, ropes and pulleys, old dishes. When they whine for air conditioning and iPhones, we drive to a creek or hiking trail. As much as possible, we engage in the world God created. By this I mean we go to a waterfall, not an amusement park. We sketch daily. We open the windows, hunt for wildflowers, collect beetles and bullfrogs. The sweetness of summer is rooted in awakening to a vibrant, growing world.
It is vital that parents engage in the four elements of redemptive leisure – habits, work, books, and nature – with their kids. These action are sacramental, and we know that we will become what we behold. Often we desire to disconnect in summer, but this is a mistake. The meaningful work of parenting through summer is to nourish our families through holy habits, productive work, rich stories, and natural wonders.