W inslow Homer’s Boys In a Pasture embodies summer. You can smell the grass, feel the heat, hear the bees buzzing. Do you remember the glorious freedom of a long summer of such days stretching out as far as the eyes could see? For me, this painting conjures up endless days of wandering around the neighborhood, bike-riding, river-exploring, woods-adventuring, and hours and hours and hours of reading. And precious days spent at grandparents’ homes in the company of treasured cousins, on opposite ends of Virginia. What beautiful boundary lines; what a priceless inheritance.
My own children had a different, but I think, equally carefree, happy summer existence. We studied hard all winter, even slogging through snow days (“you’ll thank me in the summer, dear!”) so that we could be free from early May until mid-September. Our kids spent countless unscheduled hours in the yard, at the creek, on the swings. Apart from a short summer swim team season, I did not interfere or plan activities, even when friends came over. We rarely had a summer agenda, besides my occasional attempts to enforce leftover math lessons or some other academic subject that I was sure we were “behind” in. Fortunately, these attempts rarely succeeded, and my childrens’ lives — and educations — were the better for it. When I ask them about their best childhood memories, long summer days outside figure prominently.
Among my myriad mom foibles and failures, this is an area I got mostly right. I can’t say that I had a fully developed theory of unscheduled summers and playtimes; instead, it was a happy “accident” of a passel of kids, a shortage of energy, and maybe a slightly selfish desire to get in as much reading of my own as I possibly could. Our simplified summers were yet another key to our pursuit of scholé, before I even knew that scholé was what I was seeking! Learning was most definitely taking place during this summer pattern of rest, but it was not measurable, at least not until we started up again in the autumn. More often than not, each of my children would show some kind of jump in academic or spiritual or emotional growth that I had neither orchestrated nor anticipated. I often dreaded some regression, but in fact rarely found it to be the case.
Carolyn Leiloglou at The Story Warren calls an unscheduled summer a gift:
Oh, we went to VBS and maybe camp for a week, but the rest of our days were fairly free. We swam and rode bikes . . . We climbed trees and caught lizards. And we rested. Those summers of freedom gave our bodies, minds, and hearts a chance to dream, to imagine, and to just be. – Story Warren, “The Gift of an Unscheduled Summer“
A side benefit of our unscheduled summers was that my children learned to organize themselves and others without adult intervention. Football games in the front yard were daily fare. Again, although I would love to say that was my plan all along, the truth is that this reading mother had little interest in organizing sports for my kids. Not only that, they did a much better job of it than I did. Years later, I realized the genius of my approach when I saw that Anthony Esolen agreed with me!
There are mental health benefits to unscheduled seasons of life as well. Research is showing that the full-to-frenetic calendar we feel compelled to provide for our children is actually harmful in many ways.
Normal personality quirks combined with the stress of “too much” can propel children into the realm of disorder. A child who is systematic may be pushed into obsessive behaviours. A dreamy child may lose the ability to focus. – Simplifying Childhood May Protect Against Mental Health Issues
Of course, Charlotte Mason said it first when she spoke of a “secure, quiet childhood” as a powerful defense for mind, body, and soul:
With all the pressure to give our children a good education and adequate socialization, it’s good to remember that a mother’s first duty should be to provide a secure, quiet early childhood. For the first six years, children should have low-key schedules so they can just be and grow, and they should spend most of their waking hours outside enjoying the fresh air. This is not just good for their bodies; their heart, soul and mind are nourished with exactly what they need when we leave them alone in a stress-free environment among happy influences that give them no reason to rebel and misbehave. – Charlotte Mason, Home Education (from Ambleside Online)
Dr. George Grant gives a powerful illustration from the history of weaponry in the the medieval practice of “unstringing the bow.”
At the end of the thirteenth century when the Norman English bowmen began to pioneer the powerful new military technology of the long bow, they discovered that the more elastic and flexible a bow remained, the more useful it would be when battle came. As a result, they learned a host of new maintenance techniques—fine herbal oils to rub into the wood, leather sheaves to seal out moisture, and storage niches far from the drying effects of the hearthside. But they discovered that the very best precaution that a bowman could take for his weapon was simply to unstring the bow when it was not in use. To release the tension, relax the pressure, and relieve the strain allowed the bow to last longer, snap back faster, and set arrows to flight further. A bow that was never unstrung would quickly lose its effectiveness. A bow that was never relaxed became useless as an offensive weapon. – Dr. George Grant, King’s Meadow Study Center
Here at the end of my homeschooling days, I find myself grateful for this happily providential rhythm of life gifted to our family by Giver of all good things. Is this summer the right time to give your children – and yourselves – the gift of an unscheduled summer?
Parts of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog, The Reading Mother.
Kathy Weitz is a lifelong Virginian and a lifetime learner. Over the past twenty-five years, as she and her husband Rick have educated their six children at home, she has pursued a classical education for herself as well. In addition to her own children, she has taught a number of other students, both online and in the classroom. She is a founding board member and the Director of Curriculum at Providence Prep, a Scholé Community in Purcellville, Virginia, and a Scholé Groups Mentor. Kathy shares some of the fruit of her experience at Cottage Press. This spring, with the graduation of her youngest son, Kathy will transition to Home Educator Emerita; in preparation for this new season, she has recently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Christian and Classical Studies at Knox Seminary. In January, she joined Scholé Groups as Administrator. Kathy blogs about Morning Time and commonplace books and self-education and scholé at The Reading Mother.