That '70s summer: With camps, sports and lessons cancelled, kids are going free-range again

While many of us have been using terms like "lockdown" to describe the new normal under COVID-19, there's one group that won't be held captive for much longer: kids.

What's a kid to do during the summer of COVID-19? Just about whatever they want

Kids left to their own devices will come up with all kinds of ways to have fun. (CBC)

While many of us have been using terms like "lockdown" to describe the new normal under COVID-19, there's one group that won't be held captive for much longer: kids.

Once they're finally liberated from the shackles of online learning, there will be no summer school, no camp, no lessons and no team sports — there will be virtually no organized activity of any kind. While their parents toil away and family vacations remain in limbo, many kids will be gloriously, thrillingly free to do just about whatever they want.

They'll be playing like it's 1975.

That's what we're going back to. It shouldn't seem like we're landing on Mars. It should seem like we're landing in 1977.- Lenore Skenazy, Let Grow

"I would love my kids to have the same sort of '70s summer that I had," said Dr. Michael Cheng, a child psychiatrist at CHEO. "Just biking around with friends, exploring, going from one friend's house to another."

Get outside. Grab your bike. Go explore. Come back when you're hungry, or when the street lights come on.

"[If] you happen to live in a neighbourhood … where you can just let your kids play outside … and just explore all day and come back at the end of the day, then … that's great," Cheng said. 

Dr. Michael Cheng is a child psychiatrist at CHEO and the father of two kids ages nine and six. (André Coutu/CHEO)

A glimpse of the past

Parenting experts say COVID-19 has given us the potential to give our school-age kids a glimpse of the past, the halcyon days of sticking hockey cards in bike spokes, catching tadpoles, climbing trees and playing nicky nicky nine doors. Also getting slivers and sunburns and coming home very, very dirty.

A '70s-style summer might be just what time-poor kids need, according to Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, a non-profit that promotes childhood independence, and founder of the Free Range Kids movement. 

"Until I was 10, I never went to camp either. Summer was this wide swath of time," Skenazy said.

Contrast that with the frenetic pace of modern family life, at least before the pandemic came along. 

"[Kids are] supervised and shoved along from the second they get up," she said. "If you had plucked almost anyone out of the '70s and threw them into [pre-pandemic 2020] they would say, 'This is the strange existence. How come there aren't kids out on their bikes? How come nobody's building forts?'"

A silver lining in a dark time

In other words, a '70s summer, brought to you by COVID-19, could be a magical silver lining in a dark and difficult time.

"Almost all parents today lived through it. Almost all of us can't stop talking about how much we loved it. And that's what we're going back to. It shouldn't seem like we're landing on Mars. It should seem like we're landing in 1977," Skenazy said.

Of course, it's easy to romanticize that '70s summer, to remember the freedom and forget the fears. But there have been cultural changes that make those days tough to recreate, including a general erosion of community. The Block Parents are gone.

Mother Nature offers a safe space and a balm for weary souls. In this picture, Braxton Howard, 2, takes a closer look at the snail he found on a wilderness trail. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

"When I grew up on the street you knew all your neighbours, so if I was with Billy and we're getting into trouble setting fires, the neighbour would come up to me and tell me to put away the lighter, then they'd march over to your mom," Cheng said.

"But it's a different world nowadays. A lot of parents … may not have that confidence to discipline another child, especially if they don't even know that child."

Skenazy blames the disconnect on aspirational parents who try, usually with the best of intentions, to pad their kids' experiential CV with Little League, violin lessons and Kumon. 

"It's hard to create a community when everyone is in a car or in a program that's not on your block," she said. "What I'm seeing is communities being re-knit by the coronavirus catastrophe because the kids are outside on their bikes."

Time to be bored

Despite a generation of adult oversight and perhaps over-programming, kids are reverting to type thanks to "empty time and distracted parents," Skenazy said.

"[Parents] being distracted is giving kids back the thing that made childhood good, which is free time to be bored, so bored that you figure out something to do," she said. "Not every step in the child's life has to be for the college resumé."

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a non-profit that promotes childhood independence. She fondly remembers when 'summer was this wide swath of time' free of programming and parental meddling. (CBC)

Some camps and activities will go ahead this summer, albeit online. As much as he reminisces about his own free-range childhood, Cheng, a father of two kids ages nine and six, doesn't entirely dismiss the potential value of those virtual options.

"If the choice is between your kid playing Fortnite or Minecraft versus online camp, I'd probably rather them be in an online camp," he said. "But if the choice is between online camp or … playing in the forest behind your house, I would rather them play in the forest."

Of course, not every family lives near a forest, or in a safe neighbourhood where parents feel comfortable letting their children roam free.

"So if you're downtown Toronto at Jane and Finch, living in an apartment building, it might be a lot harder for you to do," Cheng acknowledged.

Still, Cheng's CHEO colleague, scientist Mark Tremblay, studied data from numerous countries and found children are more at risk when they're inside and sedentary, where they suffer higher rates of respiratory problems, obesity and diabetes.

And there are other, more insidious risks. "Having your kids lured online by a pedophile and killed are actually much higher if your kids are stuck inside all day as opposed to them being outside," Cheng observed.

COVID-19 is challenging the notion that downtime is wasted time, or that children must be occupied with a project that has an obvious benefit. So no, the summer of 2020 won't be a writeoff because there are no power skating lessons.

"It's a horrible burden to think that every moment must be productive, especially in a child's life," Skenazy said. 

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