Many eager parents in the United States like myself anxiously await the month of February. This is the time of the year when summer camps release their offerings which start filling up in a matter of weeks. From robotics and coding to golf and horseback riding, many parents think of summer camps as a window into a future profession for their child starting as early as their toddler years. Every February that I braced to do my parental duty of signing up my two daughters for a variety of activities during summer, I fondly reminisced about my own lazy summers growing up in Pakistan where late mornings gave way to long days of free-play and enrichment in unique ways.
I was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan during the 1980s. The earlier part of my youth in Karachi was spent in the neighborhood of Rohilkhand Society from where we later relocated to Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Block-6. My most vivid memories of the Society Area as it was called are those of long walks in the summer evenings with my father, Abu and my brother Rehan. Our walk would usually end at a park where we would spend rest of the evening. Once we grew older, this was replaced by street cricket from Asr to Maghreb time on the streets of Gulshan-e-Iqbal. As teams were made and alliances formed, some of the least athletic of us, which included a few other girls and me, sneaked inside our friends’ homes before being delegated as the fielders, which were some of the least coveted positions on the cricket team. The chime of a gola-ganda wala could provide an excuse for all the neighborhood kids and aunties to come out on the street and easily spend an hour just hanging around long after the vendor was gone.
As I reflected on the summers of my childhood, what vividly stood out for me was the fluidity of days. Every morning started afresh and brought its own unique excitement. My father was a college professor and therefore had the opportunity to spend most of his summers with us at home. We would make mandatory summer trips to the Frere Hall, where over a bun-kebab Abu would narrate the history of the place and reminisce about his own childhood growing up in the area. One of the most exciting times would be a trip to Funland, Karachi’s only amusement park in the 1980s with roller coasters and miniature train rides. In the days when all-inclusive passes were not a thing, each of us seven cousins who had made it to the Funland huddled on top of each other on the two backseats of a car, were assigned a quota of ride tickets. Our critical thinking skills developed on ground while weighing costs and benefits of selecting one ride over the other amidst a multitude of options.
And then there was the sea. The effervescent Karachi coastline that is home to many beaches, the most famous ones being the Hawks Bay, Sandspit and Paradise Point, provided an entertainment outlet for rich and poor alike. There were times when picnics were planned in detail, with rented transportation, buckets of mangoes and packets of biryani. At other times, we would board our car again, huddled once more on top of one another in the backseats of the car. While at the beach, the high tides of the summer months often kept us at bay, and there were times that we had to contend with a camel ride at the shore rather than splashing in the water. But the sea was always worth the trip.
There were cousins. Always. Lots of them. Our paternal family home in Gulshan-e-Iqbal was a place full of people and energy. The summer often started with a trip to Urdu Bazaar for my cousin Adnan and me, under the supervision of Abbajan, our grandfather. We bought piles of books at a fraction of a cost to last us through the summer months. Another summer favorite was a trip to Nani Ami’s house where our maternal family would get together to spend the day and sometimes nights as well. Most of our days at her house, were spent playing hide- and-seek in her courtyard. Nani Ami was one of the few people to own a VCR during the 1980s. Many family summer nights at her place were wrapped up with the youngest to the oldest sitting solemnly in front of a 20-inch TV, to watch Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan frolicking on the screen.
The social, emotional, and cognitive development that took place in these seemingly ordinary situations was unparalleled. A study published in 2007 by Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Study of Pediatrics expressed concern over the increasingly limited opportunities available to children for free play “because of a family’s hurried lifestyle as well as an increased focus on the fundamentals of academic preparation in lieu of a broader view of education.
I experienced this transition in parenting firsthand as I became a mother in 2006. My husband and I were consumed by parenthood even before our daughter Sabina was born. We read extensively about the dos and don’ts of raising a child in America and most of the advice highlighted virtues of regulating and providing directions to a child’s life right from infancy. My husband’s medical training in pediatrics did nothing to curtail his fatherly fears. As immigrant parents we were scared— afraid of the unknown. What if our daughter gets socially isolated? What if she never learns to speak because there is no one to talk to her except for her parents? What if she grows up to be too shy? Or too American? Or too Muslim for the American society? Our fears as first-time immigrant parents in the United States knew no bounds.
Year-round and summer camps came as a solution to all our apprehensions. They offered activities for infants from six weeks all the way up to the teen years. They provided the direction, structure and cultivation of mind and habits that all parenting books as well as parents talked about. I duly enrolled my first daughter during her earliest months in a year-round camp at Gymboree, which also offered a special schedule during the summer months. The camps that came at a price of hundreds of dollars a week, became an important part of our summer schedules. From summer camp at the local mosque to caricature drawings, coding, space science and sports we did it all. As our family grew, most of my own summer would be spent in car, driving my girls around, sometimes to two camps in a day. We judged our success as a family by the productivity of hours defined as the time spent by our girls in a structured activity during their months off from school. Over the years, as parents we almost forgot how to function and carry on with our daily lives when kids were around.
Then one day, all the chores that we called life came to a halt. COVID-19 changed it all. All the organization that we had so meticulously created around our lives was gone. Screen-time limits were thrown out of the window and my kids attended school in their pajamas lying around on couches. Soon, spring gave way to summer. Instead of signing up my kids for virtual summer camps, I took a bold leap of faith and decided to call if off for three months. Travelling could not get on the schedule either. All we had were ourselves. We walked, talked, biked, and hiked. We read books and watched a ton of tv shows and movies. The boundaries of age- appropriateness were blurred and we took our picks on books and shows depending on the family’s mood at the time. Fortunate to live in another city by the sea, we made trips to the Annapolis beach, which provided a learning opportunity in getting rid of a jellyfish sting. My daughters learned to stop and take in the moment of joy when their hot chocolate bombs beautifully melted as desired, but also adapt to failure and disappointment when that brownie tower kept falling off. My then ten-year-old took to sewing and found a hobby in making masks. In so many ways, we went back to my own childhood in the 80s sans Funland.
A 2018 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education emphasizes the importance of free play for children. While it presumes that most American children will spend part of their summer at camps, which might also be true of present-day Pakistan, it urges parents to select the camps which allow “opportunities for downtime and fun.” It indicates choice, wonder and delight as important elements of “playful learning.” These are often absent from parent-chosen summer camps where most children begrudgingly spend their summer mornings.
As summer 2021 approaches, I again find myself part of the conversations where parents are debating enrolling their children in summer camps. Many summer camp offers are landing in my email inbox with a promise to take my children where they need to be in squash or math for the Fall. I find my conscience debating, torn between that yearning for conscription that had defined my motherhood for years and a desire to go back to the basics that I had craved for years but found in uncalled for circumstances during the pandemic. For now, we have decided to take a break this summer as well, hoping to spend days at the beach, long walks in the neighborhood and winding down in the evening with food off the grill. Perhaps, we will be able to make lemonade as well.
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics,119(1), 182-191. doi:10.1542/peds.2006-2697
Shafer, Leah. “Summertime, Playtime.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, 12 June 2018, www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/06/summertime-playtime.