Slow down. Tell a story

Parents of my acquaintance complain of the constant hustle and bustle during summer vacation, running children from one activity to the other. It is haut-rigueur for some children to attend day camp, compete on a swim team, and participate in a year round competitive sports program.

This whirl of activity often leaves parent and child more exhausted during the summer than the school year. Images of summertime are usually cast in a light of hot, lazy, and relaxing days by a lake, but the reality for most working parents is that they must struggle to balance the demands of their schedules with providing safe activities for their children. This dilemma often results in hectic, stress-filled days, comparable to those during the school year. While summer camp is an option for some, the cost of day and overnight camps can be too expensive for many families’ budgets. Structured activities are beneficial, but parents and caregivers should also keep in mind the advantages of unstructured time for children.

This overall summer intensity is compounded by the recent emphasis on standards-based testing, which would result in less funding. Children are now expected to complete extensive projects or attend summer school. These endeavors are time consuming and, considering the current mood of education, unavoidable.

However, what are we losing in the process? At the end of the day’s hustle and bustle there may be only enough time to grab a quick meal and space out in front of the television. What are lost in the fray are periods of reflection and hours of unstructured imaginative play, a foundation for many creative and truly educated minds.

Where have the long and lazy days of summer gone, when hours could be whittled away sitting on the stoop waiting for a friend? Do you recall waiting for the mailman or the tinny musical sound of the ice cream truck on its way? What better time than the dog days of summer to slow down and fill a place in the heart with the stuff that dreams are made of?

Fortunately, activities that are meaningful, enhance learning and are cost-effective do exist. Storytelling is as old as time itself and as current as today’s headlines. Storytelling is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, method of communicating ideas and images. Story performance created mythologies long before they were written and edited by scribes; storytelling is part of how humans translate their individual private experience of understanding into a public forum. Storytelling and dramatic readings tend to create harmony among people of all ages.

Telling stories and memorizing poems and monologues are powerful tools for learning. The process can include selecting a favorite piece, visualizing images, and then acting it out. The age of the child does not matter. Memorizing Green Eggs and Ham can be as exciting as the “To be or not to be” speech from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Storytelling and reading aloud have so many benefits outside of the pure enjoyment they afford.

Storytelling is an effective tool in ending hostilities, bringing about a sense of community, and creating shared experiences. This is especially true if there are discussions after the story is completed or when storytelling shifts to a group of children relating their own oral histories.

While attending undergraduate school, I developed a storytelling/creative dramatics class for a group of pre-adolescent girls at a juvenile detention center in San Francisco.

Most of these children were not guilty of crime and were there as victims of sexual abuse, abandonment and divorce. They lived in dreary isolation peppered by tears and growing interpersonal hostilities. The girls rarely spoke to one another and when they did it was under the watchful eyes. Telling stories and acting them out served to unify the girls in their shared loneliness and fears of being cast about at such a young age.

Young children from more secure backgrounds are not facing this type of stress, however they oftentimes carry insecurities and demons, as well. Storytelling provides a venue for sharing experiences and provoking relevant discussions. What better time that during the summer to encourage such communication? And who knows, from a backyard event, a trip to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, might be in the offing. This festival, which takes place in October, has been called one of the top hundred events in North America and has sparked a renaissance of storytelling across the country.

Assigned summer readings may stop being a chore by organizing a neighborhood book club where children meet and, with a parent’s supervision, discuss what they have read. Besides being exposed to all kinds of literature, this kind of club would promote a very positive attitude towards reading as a social experience and not an isolating one.

Perhaps one of the parents or a senior citizen might want to share their autobiography or favorite stories with the neighborhood children. A woman on my block did just such a thing when I was a child. At teatime she would gather the children to sit under her grape arbor for homemade cookies, lemonade, and to listen to her favorite operas. I never tired of hearing about poor Madame Butterfly and how the American soldier abandoned her. I must have memorized her version of Puccini’s tale so completely that I could not only recall the details later but ultimately passed them down to my own children.

A wonderful and often undervalued resource is the local library, which often provides exciting resources for children and parents alike. Librarians open the eyes of countless children to the magic of literature. Until recently, libraries offered little or nothing for children below the age of three, but in the past few years, many have introduced programs for toddlers. Children and adults can participate in activities that may include reading aloud, storytelling, finger play, rhymes, and songs.

Preschoolers usually enjoy the group activities offered by libraries, where they can participate in puppet shows and arts and crafts activities. For elementary school children, summer reading programs are available, as well are variations of the read-aloud and storytelling hours that often include discussions and presentations by the children themselves. Many public libraries also offer training courses for children in using different software or educational programs.

The unstructured days of summer offer ample time to develop computer skills and to advance learning in ways that are cost-effective and exciting. Perhaps it may be late for this summer, but when the lazy days roll around again, don’t get nervous about securing a spot in day camp. Roll out the blanket; make lemonade and cookies and you and your family will have a good old time together. Time goes so fast that in the wink of an eye, shared family moments may be out of reach.