If you got out a pencil and graphed my kids’ time outside, with the date on the horizontal axis and the number of hours spent outside (and not fraying their parents nerves alternately bickering with one another and submitting requests to play on the iPad or watch TV) on the vertical, you would find a dramatic and sustained upward spike beginning right after Labor Day.

What is the underlying structural change that explains this?  School has begun.  Indeed, just as the school year begins and forces them to stay inside half the day (thankfully under the care of somebody else), suddenly going outside and playing with their friends becomes their favorite way to pass the time.

It’s not because time outside has suddenly become more precious.  On any August day when they have already wasted half of it sitting around inside, the time has become equally scarce.  And it’s not because time outside is a way to escape homework because that doesn’t really start until the second or third week of school.

I think the reason is coordination failure.  Playing outside by yourself is not very much fun, you only want to go outside when everyone else is outside.  But when you have the luxury of the entire day, it becomes difficult to predict the precise time of day when all the neighborhood kids are going to be outside.  And since they all have the same problem there in fact is no time of the day when all the neighborhood kids are outside and therefore no time of day when any of the neighborhood kids are outside.

Uniformly robbing all children in the neighborhood of 6 hours of prime playtime leaves them with only a few hours left in the day in which to coordinate.  And releasing them all from captivity at exactly the same time synchronizes them and creates an ideal focal point.  You find your friends outside immediately after school is out.

Unfortunately, in September in Chicago the sun is going to set not long after that, the weather is getting cool, and we really have only a month or so before playing outside is not going to be feasible anymore.  And that’s why “Summer Vacation” is a badly misguided convention.  School should be in session through the entire summer so that kids can make the most out of its coordination benefits.  There would be no more “summer time blues.”

Since kids spend their vacation indoors anyway, the vacation should be in the Winter when going outside isn’t an option.  Then we can really put Winter Vacation to good use:  they can catch up on all of the homework they avoided during the Summer School year when they were instead outside playing.

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