Few schoolchildren make it through a dozen years of schooling without being assigned some variation of the “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay. During the summer of 1947, the editors of LIFE Magazine decided to help two boys prepare to write their essays by dispatching Alfred Eisenstaedt to Louisiana, Mo., to illustrate their summer pastimes with his camera.
Pres and Mac, as the 12-year-old childhood friends were nicknamed, lived 75 miles up the Mississippi River from St. Louis, and they spent much of their time in swimming holes and haylofts. Aside from Pres’ paper route and the boys’ chores, each day was rife with possibility, with ample resources from which to make their own fun: the hay bales on Mac’s father’s farm, the grapevines strong enough to climb, the catfish ripe for catching.
With researchers today warning of the summer learning loss and some education experts advocating for year-round schooling, many parents who can afford to are enrolling their kids in brain-stimulating summer programs rather than allowing them to roam free like Pres and Mac did. What is lost in limiting unstructured play is up for debate—but, as some psycholigists argue, what’s at stake may be more than just material for that back-to-school essay.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.