The Balancing Act: Free Play vs. Structure

By Lauren Perelmuter, Founder of Art To Grow On Children’s Art Center

Art To Grow OnOh, summer. A more relaxed routine, bright sunshine and time that isn’t so planned.

Each spring, leading up to summer, I toil with the question of how many camps to enroll my boys in. How much time should I take off from work, and how do I want to remember the summer? We all know how quickly the years go by.

In our house, the first week of summer is just great. We don’t plan a thing. We talk about the end of the school year, review the upcoming grade each of our boys will be in (third and sixth this year), and start to feel the shift from the daily responsibilities of homework, sports, tutoring and music lessons to a more relaxed, easygoing environment.

By the second week, the boys are really ready for camp. They wake up and are ready to go, ready to do, and just ready! Each child is so different, but in general, children thrive with some sort of daily structure. We as adults also need a bit of a plan, predictability and a sense of purpose. So why do I forget that kids need it, too?

I took my youngest son with me to one of the half-day art camps that we offer, and after three hours of that, he said, “Mommy, can you now take me to my camp?” His other camp, that is – the one with his friends, swimming, and popsicles. I had to laugh! The three hours with Mom wasn’t enough. The next day he started full-day camp and he’s been quite happy.

Although my boys are enrolled in several weeks of camp, I make sure that after camp and in between camps there is open, free time. Free time is a critical component to a child’s growth and development. We have lots of friends over after camp, and many have been staying for dinner. That is a ton of fun and meal time takes on a whole new dynamic with extra friends at the table. Long, bright days call for playing outside before and after dinner, too. I made sure our basketballs, soccer balls, scooters and skateboards were fixed (somehow breaking often during the year!) so they were ready for the taking. And let’s not forget the bins of Legos and bowls of sidewalk chalk, organized so they, too, can be grabbed easily and the creating can begin.

Child development experts note that incorporating free play into our children’s lives is critical to overall healthy growth and development. Children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function – a broad term used for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation and the ability to switch between activities. When playing, children make their own decisions, problem solve, collaborate, and acquire and practice their social skills. Our kids just see it as “fun,” but when we understand how important free play is, a few of us might be reminded to not overschedule our summers.

So, camp and play is it for us. Not too much of either one – a little of both – should make for a great summer.

Lauren Perelmuter is Founder and President of Art To Grow On Children’s Art Center, Inc., with locations in the South Bay and Los Angeles. Visit them online at or learn more by calling 310-625-6028.

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