The Case for Summer Vacation

I’m trying to catch up on summer reading before the season ends, and just finished reading the cover story in an issue of TIME magazine that I picked up earlier this month. The cover first caught my eye: A shirtless boy in a baseball cap skipping a stone across a pond, rendered in a retro, Norman Rockwell style. But it was the headline that made me buy the magazine. In bold black type across the top of the image, it said, “The Case Against Summer Vacation.”

The article, by David von Drehle, claims that Americans romanticize a lengthy summer break that has its roots in our country’s agrarian past. In our imaginations, summertime for children means day after day off the clock. It means the freedom to let minds roam — and bodies, too, from stream to seaside to forest and lake. In this idyllic summer world, every child spends hours outside, reads dozens of books, plays games with cousins and grandparents, daydreams, invents, travels, explores.

The reality, von Drehle convincingly argues, is that for many children, summer isn’t a time of enrichment but a time of loss — learning loss. On average, American children lose one month of progress in math skills from the end of one school year to the beginning of the next; for children from low-income families, the “summer slide” can mean slipping back three months in reading comprehension, compared with their middle-income peers.

By the time such disadvantaged children complete elementary school, they have fallen three grade levels behind, according to a 20-year study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Roughly two-thirds of that achievement gap can be attributed to summer learning loss.

But this achievement gap doesn’t make “the case against summer vacation.” It makes the case against wasted vacations. The article describes children who spend their summer breaks on virtual house arrest — cooped up indoors in unsafe neighborhoods, unsupervised by adults — or in communities with shockingly few resources for children. Enrichment programs can close the gap, von Drehle says, and he profiles several successful ones around the country.

Unfortunately, the headline and a simplified version of the article, which can be summarized as “Our children are falling behind academically because we insist on holding onto a summer break that has no place in modern America,” is now making the rounds.

When I look closely at some of the data included in the article, I come to a different set of questions and conclusions. In a graph charting “The Summer Slide,” I notice that the slope of achievement steepens for children from high-income families in the summer between third and fourth grade, and again the following summer. It’s actually higher during the summer months than during the school year.

Shouldn’t we be asking, then, What is it that high-income kids get that other kids don’t? And how do we make those things available to all children?

The TIME article offers a partial answer to both questions. Privileged children get enrichment during the summer months in numerous forms, from sleepaway camps to family vacations (although fewer families spend entire summers at a cottage than in previous generations). As for how to bring a version of summer to all children, under the heading “Stealth Learning,” von Drehle profiles a program in the Appalachian town of Corbin, Kentucky. Every Wednesday, Redhound Enrichment takes the children in its program to the swimming pool. They also go fishing, and when they weigh and measure their fish, they’re doing a day’s worth of math. Nearly 9 in 10 of the kids come from latchkey families. By the time school starts again, more than half of the kids improve in math by a full letter grade, or more. Interestingly, even though the program doesn’t explicitly offer reading instruction, the children also improve similarly in reading.

I’ve often written in this space about the growing body of research on the value of time in nature, down time, unplugged time, even boredom. The case for summer vacation is the case for spending time outside, for self-directed reading, for learning new skills or practicing old ones.

My family is lucky to have time, economic wherewithal, and an understanding of the importance of those lessons. When I think of what my children have done with this summer break, I think of the long list of books Ursula has devoured, but also how trips we’ve taken have let her spread her wings, both in cities and in wilder country. I remember countless games of Stratego and Settlers of Catan that Virgil played, but also how much time he spent in the water and around our land, and how he backpacked even with his arm in a full cast.

This is the kind of stealth learning that actually improves academic achievement — and does something more that can’t be measured. In fact, I’d like to turn the debate about summer vacation around and say that the more pleasurable, enriching activities of summer we give our children, the better off they’ll all be.

Why not have the best of summer, year-round?

Learn more
- Read the TIME article.
- See the cover.
- Read a summary of the research on summer learning loss.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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