This Is What Happened When I Convinced My Kids to Skip Summer Sports

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The sun seems to go down slower in the summertime. We know it isn’t really setting any slower, but since summer days are long, it feels as if the daylight is in no rush to leave us. In Colorado, we watched as the sun seemed to melt from its own heat and ooze slowly behind the silhouette of the mountains. Bugs fluttered in the cooling ember of the twilight as the sun yielded the sky to millions of its distant cousins and collectively all we could say was “whoa.”

This year my family made the decision to leave our overly-planned, youth sports-packed summer behind and venture intrepidly into a summer filled with nothing to do ⏤ also travel. A lot of travel. (The plan was initially revealed in a previous essay on Fatherly.) And our adventure was starting exactly as I had envisioned.

On this particular morning, we woke early not for a morning team check-in on the fields, but instead to figure out what lure would best tantalize sleepy trout (Chernobyl ants worked well, we learned). Instead of being greeted by revved-up coaches and overloaded by rule-enforcing tournament officials, we watched beavers as they gazed at us from across the pond, waddled into the water and disappeared into their dens for the rest of the day.

Instead of dropping the kids off at the town fields for yet another practice or game, we cut them loose to explore the natural world. They spent hours playing in a stream, building river rock dams and small rafts out of twigs and vines. They skipped stones and relaxed in cool pools of water, guessing cloud shapes overhead. As my fly line unfurled upstream from them in the bright blue sky above the La Plata River, the sounds of their laughter bounced off the canyon walls like a soccer ball. Except there wasn’t a soccer ball, or a lacrosse stick, or a balance beam for that matter, anywhere to be found.

We explored the San Juan Mountains on horseback, cruised a wind-swept lake on a boat, and ate more s’mores than we probably should have to celebrate our 16-year-old’s birthday. We floated the gentle whitewater of the Animas River and bravely climbed the precarious walls of Mesa Verde, where we walked in the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people and my kids stood in a silent rapture staring over the cliff walls. And all of us got ignorantly excited when we hiked a trail to a dry creek bed and unearthed fossilized shells that we learned dated back more than 65 million years to the Cretaceous Period.

Obviously, we didn’t spend the entire summer wandering the country and channeling our inner-Indiana Jones, but even back home, we enjoyed a certain sense of calm where there was once chaos. No longer under the watchful eye of coaches, referees, fans, or judges, the kids instead spent their days floating lazily in the pool, playing in the park, and flying drones. They read (and napped in hammocks), played board games, and rode their bikes around the neighborhood; they had epic Nerf wars, tubed the local river, and in the case of my teenager, worked a new part-time job.

Late summer found us again on the road, however, and this time in Washington, D.C. Excited about an up-close lesson in American history, they saw John Glenn’s spacesuit and Friendship 7, the chairs Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee sat in while ending the Civil War, and the Last Spike that joined the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad. We visited the capitol and national monuments and stood just feet from George Washington’s sword and Ben Franklin’s walking stick. And the only sidelines we stood on were the ones on the battlefield at Manassas.

This past summer, everything we did had no future payoff. No spot earned on a team, no skills would be improved, and no tournaments would be won. No trophies or medals were earned. The only remnants of summer on the kids was their sun-kissed skin and the unseen memories each one had made. Together we logged more than 5,000 miles on the road, driving to destinations where our only objective was to have fun and explore. Did I mention we did it without a DVD player in the car?

As we began another school year a couple of weeks ago, I asked the kids what their favorite memory from the summer was. They struggled to pick just one. But after plucking a single memory from their minds like a dandelion, and offering anecdotes, they all agreed that this summer had been their favorite.

And I agreed too. My favorite memory was in Washington, D.C. when, after a full day of absorbing the nation’s history, our kids broke out into a random wrestling match on the National Mall. They tackled and tickled each other in the cool grass, smiled, laughed and ran around happily, spastic in a relaxed glee I had not seen since before we started the regimen of organized summer sports. Then again, the thought of them playing in the river uninvitingly entered my mind as they disappeared down the sidewalk.

I guess like them, I had plenty of dandelions to pick from. In the end, though, I knew that none of those flowers would have grown if we didn’t skip summer sports. And while, sure, they might have missed out on a few trophies or medals. But in the end, I suppose there was an award won after all: Best summer ever.

Steve Alvarez lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, four kids, and Chowder the dog. He is the author of the book, Selling War: A Critical Look at the Military’s PR Machine, published by Potomac Books.

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