If there's one thing my colleague does without fail every year, it is to send his kids to their grandparents' home in Kanyakumari to spend the summer vacation. In today's age of skill-oriented courses, workshops and summer camps, this sounded refreshing.

With parents increasingly opting for useful vacation-time activities for their children, the idea of a holiday without an agenda can only seem novel.

After several months of a taxing routine — school and the host of classes before and after — every child, one would think, deserves a break. It is a reasonable and in fact, important requirement.

A few days ago, I saw this little boy in the neighbourhood leaving somewhere around 10 a.m. With his hair combed neatly and sporting a colourful T-shirt, he walked out of his compound, with a little school bag hanging from his tiny shoulders. Half-closing his eyes in the morning sun, he mounted his father's motorbike and left. He was leaving for a summer camp, I found out. I do not know when he came back or what exactly he did, but something about the episode made it seem like it could have been, well, just another school day.

Anecdotes like “Oh, you know how we would climb trees in my grandmother's backyard”, or “Eat with all the cousins, sitting in a circle”, may be seen as romanticising the notion of a vacation, but the fact that these experiences provided a welcome and much-needed departure from the mundane cannot be ignored. And it is this kind of departure that is becoming rare.

“This summer, I have put my son in a robotics workshop. He is really interested in it,” a parent proclaimed with pride. Another would have opted for handwriting classes. And yet another, for spoken English. Often, for the child, this would only mean attending some class or the other, in regular clothes instead of in a school uniform. The group might be different, the instructor, someone unfamiliar, and the task, somewhat different from what she would have to do in school — but those would be practically the only differences.

When did summer vacations become so structured, marked by a series of classes and with a target of attaining a specific set of skills? It must be in the last decade or so, for even the generations that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s have nice memories of a holiday that was not necessarily to do with exotic locations, but one that guaranteed long hours of play, both in the sun and indoors. Even if it meant doing arbitrary things — from playing a board game only to abandon it when the imminent outcome looked unfavourable, or eating a full mango when one felt like it.

It is not as if children do not have these options today, but the time for random exploration has clearly shrunk. Even if a child wanted to do something on her own, she would have to plan carefully to accommodate it in her summer schedule of classes. “What do I do? He sits in front of the computer all the time. I'd rather have him learn something useful,” a young mother told me, in her defence. What some adults may consider useful may be quite different from children's idea of fun – something they must be entitled to, at least during the vacation.

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