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I was born in the 80’s, but most of my childhood memories are from the early 90’s. My husband and most all of my friends grew up during this time period too. Parenting was different in the early 90’s. It was the mid-point between the distant parenting of earlier generations and the helicopter parenting of today. Our parents loved us, but they didn’t hover over us or try to satisfy our every desire. No one had cell phones in their pockets, and books and adults still had the answers, not Google. Only a few people had computers that took ages to connect to the internet by dialing up, making a loud eeh-ooh-eeh-ooh noise, at which we were all amazed. We had fun, but no one entertained us or set up playdates for us, unless it was our birthday. In general, our time was not that scheduled. We explored the things we were interested in and played with the kids in the neighborhood. And whichever parent or adult was around felt free to parent us along with their own kids. If we got out of line, they didn’t mind telling us so. The blog post that follows is the first in a five-part series of lessons based on stories from that time. I hope they help you to remember how to bring out the awesome 90’s parent in yourself this summer!

child plays in an astronaut costume and dreams of becoming a spaceman.

I watch her line up her dolls, arranging them in straight orderly rows.  Everyone is there, Kate, Kitty, Kangaroo.  She distributes a carefully cut out small sheet of paper to each student containing identical handwritten questions.  Seated in front of her class, I watch her read aloud to them from the worn pages of her favorite book, stopping to review each question with her class.  Later on, she sets up items from her room, categorizing them by type, a colorful assortment of plastic fruit and vegetables piled near a rainbow row of boxes of food and supplies.  She sits on a blanket counting money and swiping credit cards, the ding of  her cash register cuts through the silence, as the drawer springs open to give change to each family member patron.  I look over from my work at the computer to watch her, feeling a mix of joy and nostalgia, followed by a tinge of familiar motherhood guilt.

And yet what I remember most positively about my own summers growing up is the free time – the fluid, seemingly unending and uncommitted minutes, hours, and days to do what I wanted.  Although my mom may tell a different story, surprisingly, I don’t remember boredom or hours spent in front of the television.  Instead, I associate summer with the freedom to create and the time to do so – a welcomed antidote to the rigidly structured school year.

I remember the many times we made forts out of leaves and sticks and “camped” in the backyard, raking trails through the woods to explore the periphery of our settlement.  We sheltered ourselves from the blazing summer sun under the massive flowering dogwood tree in the yard, it’s low-hanging branches becoming a house.  We swept the dirt floors until they were smooth, making a dinner “soup” out of leaves, wild onions, and water.  Sometimes my sisters and I would choreograph dance routines or drag our bikes out of the garage for a ride around the loop that was our street, racing or trying out new tricks.  We sat in the cool grass, strategizing and planning our retribution on the neighborhood boys, who carried out surprise attacks on our fort with water balloons, gathering up our supplies or spraying them with shaving cream and silly string.  Sometimes we would stay inside, creating plays with fancy costumes and elaborate scripts.  Like my daughter, I loved to drag my mom’s dusty old college textbooks from the bookshelf to teach my younger sister and an assortment of dolls everything from physics to adolescent psychology.

Don’t get me wrong.  We had structured time too.  We ate a family dinner, went to summer camp, took music lessons, and played sports.  And we were supervised, but not in the way you would think of today — no one was directing our activities or making each moment perfect by implementing ideas carefully curated from Pinterest. There were no arranged playdates or 8:00 am to 8:00 pm schedule of planned activities.  There was just time, and we were the managers of it.

As a contemporary parent,  this free-play time seems almost foreign.  It is not something we do much anymore in our scheduled world where kids are rushed from playdate, to practice, to camp, and back home just in time for bed.  Busyness has become almost a status symbol.  And there is more pressure on parents to develop skills and talents in their kids, which results in free time being viewed negatively. Imaginative play has also been removed from many early elementary programs and almost entirely replaced with the more structured learning of reading and math through worksheets and practice.  The aftermath of a relentless focus on performance since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act spurned widespread standardized testing.  But let’s not forget that free play has some huge advantages.

Significantly Improved Executive Functioning

In free play children learn, to entertain themselves without the expectation that adults will plan activities for them.  Executive functioning is the general term for skills including: long-term planning, task initiation, the ability to switch between activities, and self-regulation.  Executive functioning skills allow children to act independently in order to achieve their own goals.  As a teacher, I know that this type of self-regulation can make the difference between a student who can be relied on to get her work done regardless of what is going on around her and an a student who is adrift, dependent, and easily distracted by the actions of others.

Ability to Manage Time

In free play children are the manager of their own time. As a teacher, I have noticed what seems to be an increase in the number of students, even “good” students, who have difficulty managing their time.  Could overscheduling and a lack of free time be causing this?  Students who are constantly ushered from one pre-planned activity to the next may never develop the ability or see the necessity of taking responsibility for the management of their time.  Instead, they get used to relying on someone else for a schedule of pre-planned activities.  


In free play children use their imaginations to create something from nothing. Creativity scores for children K-12, but especially those in kindergarten through 3rd grade have significantly decreased since the 90’s.  We tend to associate creativity with the arts, but it goes beyond that to the new ideas and innovations needed in every field.  As life and employment skills, the importance of creativity and the ability to ask questions — why, what if, and how — will far outweigh the ability to produce the “correct” answer on a standardized test.  

So, you may be thinking, okay, “but what does all this mean and what exactly can I do about it?   Are you saying that all planned activities are bad?”.  No, like most things balance is important.  

  1. Consider that free time, in conjunction with some planned activities, may be the best way to give your kid a head start on the next school year.  
  2. Set limits on screen time, like 2 hours per day and then challenge your kids to find something else to do, on their own.  
  3. Finally,  join me in occasionally being happily relieved of the job of activities director.  

So that next time I see my 1-year-old happily stacking blocks on her own or my six-year-old playing store or school,  I will resist the anxiety and guilt of not finding something “better” for them to do. And instead, I will remember the joy I felt during those summers long ago, when I was given the freedom to create and explore and develop the skills that allowed me to become the person that I was interested in being.

-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC

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