As we are on the verge of launching into a new summer camp of sorts at The Reading Room, the thought of what vacations really meant and how to incorporate the spirit of fun, freedom and friendship to our kids here has constantly been on my mind.
Of course, these days, Summer Camps have become the need of the hour. And, the topic of pros and cons of sending kids off to a class ‘even on their vacations‘ has had its share of debates and controversies. Where, on the one hand, there are strong advocates against vacation classes, on the other side, we have flustered parents with no option but to keep them busy in classes and camps while they go to work.
And it’s not just about work but also the fact that kids do get extremely bored lazing around the house day after day for two whole months. And, thus begins the search for the most interesting, fun, yet useful sessions to keep them busy.
Now, if I were to be very honest, I am not entirely in favour of sending off kids from one classroom to another typically regimented structured classroom even on vacations. I mean, it is great to use this time to pick up skills like swimming, start some focused sport or artistic classes and so on. But a 9-4 type regimented structure with various sessions/periods in a day just like school, with the only difference that the subjects may not be purely academic, that wouldn’t be something I would like for a vacation experience for my kid.
Having said that, we really cannot exactly replicate the vacations from our childhood, can we? I mean, for me, summer vacations was a world away from my usual world. This was the time when we left behind our house and our cantonment wherever my parents were transferred at the moment, to visit our hometown, Trivandrum.
And so, the first part of the vacation was marked by a long long journey — either a 3–4-day long train journey with, sometimes, overnight halts at railway stations. Or, an equally lengthy road trip with nights spent in various Army Officer’s mess along the route. These completely adventurous road trips, some 25+ years back, featured halts at roadside dhabas. Imagine the scare of driving through the Chambal valley or the forests near Mysore or Bangalore while approaching Trivandrum, when we did not have any of the modern day amenities including the car AC or cell phones… This was only the tip of the vacation iceberg.
Once we arrived at Trivandrum, that’s when the primary phase of this adventure began — Cousins. So this would be the time when all of the cousins… first, second, third and every other degree… would get together at the grandparents’. We would reacquaint ourselves with each other after a whole year in different cities. And then, we begin two whole months of unstructured, almost unsupervised playtime!
Since all the homes were mostly located within a block, we could all just jump around from house to house playing with whatever we found there. And we literally just jumped, climbing walls to get everywhere. Basically, the day started with assembling at one place after breakfast and then planning the rest of the day. Or well, not planning at all but just playing. Simple, purposeless, not-necessary-to-academically-benefit kind of play.
The biggest part of our play was outdoors. We played games like Seven-tiles, chor-police, SAT, badminton, etc. And by evenings, the fathers and mothers would also sometimes join in for a much more aggressive version of Seven-tiles. On the days of summer rains, we would take turns to stand under the eaves of the traditional sloping roofs, where water fell down in great gushes like a waterfall. Soon after, we would all transfer indoors to play some board games, or do some random crafts and DIYs, that we could teach each other and that could be executed with things salvaged from junk.
We also had a couple of cousins who were good dancers. And summer vacation was when they would select whatever was the “in” song of the time and choreograph steps for them. Then there would be fervent practice and on the last few days of vacation wear pretty clothes and present the dance. Not for a performance or prizes, but just for the fun of it.
Since my parents were mostly posted in the north, this was also the time I picked up reading and writing Malayalam from a few older cousins. Again, unlike doing it in a regimented classroom, this was a lot of fun for everyone involved — no pressure and no tests — and so, whether I may or may not read or write big, tough passages from major classics, I can manage to read and write enough. And that is what finally matters.
Then there was the time later in the evenings. This was when we shared stories, sometimes from our own lives and schools, at times scary stories and sometimes from books. And then at night, when we were all back home (if were all back home and not sleeping over), was the time we would curl up in a corner reading loads of adventure books.
What I am trying to say is… we were left pretty much to our devices and hence, I think, this is the time we did a lot of growing up. This was the time when we learned most of the other things — things that we didn’t learn just from school or even from parents… we learned how to be children, we learned to hold ourselves amongst our peers, we learned to find imaginative options to fight boredom, we learned to make plans, to decide what games to play that day, we learned to be a team, we learned to fight and how not to fight, we learned to make up, we learned to agree and how to disagree, we learned to try and convince others to do something we want, and we also learned to get convinced amicably and be a sport.
We also learned a dance, we learned the rules of a new sport, we learned some crafts and techniques, we even learned languages… just not in a structured classroom. We learned just the same way that little babies learn languages and everything else. We learned by doing and by practice and, most importantly, with great fun. So at the end of it, we learned to be young people.
So, I can’t emphasise enough on the importance of unstructured play time among children in character development — when they have to discover who they are and how they react to situations even when their folks are not around to help them through tough times or when they don’t get a toy they want.
Sadly, we cannot completely recreate the magic of summer vacations like we had during our childhood. However, the effort will always be to share and create experiences with these little ones that can help take them as close to such playtime routines all in a complete fun yet developmentally helpful manner. And to make beautiful vacation memories of the kind I mentioned above…