About 15 years ago, friends whose kids went to the same preschool as ours invited us to visit the upstate bungalow colony where they spend their summers.
"Great!" we said. "But — what's a bungalow colony?"
As it turns out, it's a time portal that can transport you back to the Sputnik era. There you will find yourself in a world of impromptu kaffeeklatsches, potluck suppers and, best of all, no play dates. Kids just run around and make their own fun.
I know. Surreal.
In practical terms, we learned, a bungalow colony is actually a cluster of small, basic cabins — maybe 10, 20, up to about 100. They're usually near a lake, and most of them are an hour or two outside the city — New York. There used to be hundreds of these colonies, but in the 1970s, they started dying out because of things such as air conditioning and affluence. (As people moved to the suburbs, they didn't crave a summer shack.)
But the colony we'd been invited to, Rosmarins, in Monroe, New York, continued to exist in some kind of time bubble — still family-run, its cabins still boasting linoleum floors and Formica tables. Best of all, to this day, kids keep organizing their own games — cards, wall ball, manhunt (which is tag at night with flashlights!).
We visited our friends and felt nauseated with envy. Back in the city, we felt we had to watch our kids all the time. Here our friends actually instructed us to simply let the kids go out and play. We did. Heaven!
By the next summer, we had a bungalow of our own, and we've been coming ever since. We still quote our younger son walking out the screen door that first summer: "I'm going down to Johnny's bungalow." He was 3. And off he went.
When that same boy turned 9 and took the subway by himself, I founded Free-Range Kids, the book, blog and movement dedicated to the idea that our kids are smarter and safer than society gives them credit for. But I wonder whether it wasn't possibly bungalow life that made me see, with my own eyes, the importance of unstructured, unsupervised time in childhood.
Back in the city, we had the kids in science camp, soccer lessons, all sorts of enrichment. What I'd forgotten was how much more pleasant it is to have free time and figure out how to fill it.
Peter Gray, a Boston College psychology professor and author of the book "Free to Learn," says that one of the saddest things we've done to kids is deprive them of the chance to make their own fun, especially in mixed-age groups.
For instance, he says, a group of 7-year-olds might not be able to play a game of gin rummy. But if they're playing with a couple of 9-year-olds, the older kids tell them, "Hold up your cards!" and "Don't waste your ace!" For their part, the 7-year-olds are so in awe of the big kids that they practice holding it together — what the child development experts call executive function.
In this way, everyone gets socialized. The older kids learn patience and empathy. They grow more articulate as they explain the rules to the little kids. The little kids, meanwhile, learn self-control. They focus. They may even learn some math — with not a teacher in sight.
All those lessons kick in when adults back off, which is what parents used to do come June and what they still do at a bungalow.
Obviously, not everyone can rent a summer place. But all adults can reach back and remember their own summers and the joy of hours stretching forth without anything to do but play.
As we try to give our kids every advantage, remember that the greatest gift just might be free time. Lots of it.
Have a great summer.