18 May 2018

Tween Summer Plans: Structure or Free Range?

Posted in Social & Emotional Learning, Health & Safety, Cognitive & Academic Peformance

Tween Summer Plans: Structure or Free Range?

Dr. Orson Morrison, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist

For many Oak Park-River Forest area families, the end of the school year is quickly approaching. As a parent myself, I’m all too familiar with the mad rush we experience in planning our children’s summer activities, particularly since high-demand programs fill up so quickly. While the younger children seem content with structured sports, arts, music, and STEM programming through various organizations like the Park Districts or Oak Park Education Foundation Base Camp, parents often get push back from tweens and older teens who are “over” structured summer camps. What’s a parent to do?

There are a number of factors to consider in developing a summer plan for your tween. Parents should consider the academic, social, emotional, physical, cultural, and overall developmental needs of their child. An ideal summer plan for one child may not be so for another child. Let’s consider some of these areas:


There is lots of literature out there suggesting that summer is a time where students lose some of the academic gains they made in the year prior. Without the regular practice of various academic skills, students may not enter school in the fall at the same academic level as when they started the summer. Summer is an opportunity to practice academic skills in non-conventional, non-classroom-based ways. For example, if your family is planning a vacation, perhaps your tween could help by going to the library to get books on the place you are visiting and help but together the itinerary (reading/writing) and/or budget (math).


Developmentally, tweens need a sense of belongingness, particularly to peers. While we often think of play as something important for younger children, tweens and teens need time to play with their peers. Unstructured time to hang out in person, talk, and share experiences is important. Far too often, tweens are forgoing in-person connection to connection via social media, video games, and other forms of technology. Extended sleep-overs, supervised outings, neighborhood exploring by bike, days at the pool, or short-term stay away camps can facilitate social connection to others. I do think that Oak Park – River Forest needs more spaces where tweens and teens can go to “hang-out” and engage in informal programming, perhaps facilitated by mentors.


Summer can be an important time to bolster self-esteem and confidence through trying new things and building skills and interests. Shy or socially anxious kids might get more exposure to social interactions through group activities that are fun and engaging. Kids who have difficulty regulating emotions also benefit from calming interactions with nature and the outdoors. Tweens are also entering a time in their lives where they are strengthening their sense of empathy and moral compass. Volunteering can help kids gain perspective for “others” and can help build a positive sense of self. Again, it’s important to have conversations with your tween and allow them to have input on the sorts of activities that peak their interest.


The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents monitor and reduce sedentary behavior for their children. With the increase in availability and usage of various forms of technological devices, tweens are far too easily enticed by screens which could displace important time for physical activity and sleep. AAP recommends that tweens engage in 60 minutes of physical activity per day and engage in 8 to 10 hours of sleep to promote optimal health.

Cultural Considerations:

Over the years I’ve worked with children from many diverse backgrounds. Parents of color often report concerns for the safety of their tweens/teens as they navigate the community on their own and they struggle to find safe spaces in the community for their tweens to “hang out.” These fears are heightened in light of several police shootings of youth of color across the nation. Parents of LGBTQ youth also express similar concerns and struggle to find LGBTQ-affirmative programming for their children.  Programs that are led by facilitators of color or those who are LGBTQ-identified may be more appealing for these youth.  “Drop-in” type programming might also be more appealing and engaging to youth from all backgrounds.

Overall, taking an individualized approach that combines structured and unstructured programming seems to be an approach that addresses the many developmental needs of kids at this age. Tweens also need to spend quality time with family and summer can be a good time to reconnect. As a community we should assess what spaces and programs exist that is geared towards a diverse group of tweens and teens. We should also engage them in conversations about what they feel our community needs to better support them and engage them during the summer months.


Orson Morrison Headshot small

Dr. Orson Morrison, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist
De Paul University

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