What is the purpose of summer break? In the 19th century, historians say, rural schools operated on an agrarian schedule that saw schools closed during spring and fall and open for summer and winter terms. Urban schools were also open during the summer (and for many more days than schools are today), but attendance was optional. Schools were often sweltering, and, with ill-founded concerns about health risks, the concept of summer vacation arose, first among wealthy urban families and later middle-class parents and school administrators. In the early 20th century, following a push to standardize school calendars, the tradition of summer break took hold, as historian Kenneth Gold described in his 2002 book School's In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools.
That fascinating history, of course, has very little to do with the way we live today, as Denise Pope describes in a conversation recorded for the Harvard EdCast (see below). Most parents have to work for most of the summer, and our schedules typically don’t correspond to school calendars at all, says Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. So the question of why we have a summer break — and what we are supposed to do with it — becomes different and more nuanced.
For many parents, summer presents a child-care problem, first and foremost, and so we turn to camps to solve it. But the notion of camp, too, has changed; increasingly, parents are enrolling kids in structured, academically aligned enrichment activities. Although well intentioned, these activities may limit kids’ access to the free time, the downtime, and the child-centered play they desperately need for healthy development, says Pope.
Kids (and parents) lead increasingly busy lives during the school year, Pope says, and that same frenetic pace now often pervades the summer. She encounters these stresses as part of her work with Challenge Success, a project she co-founded to help educators and parents retain and restore balance in children’s achievement-oriented lives.
“We’re looking at summer with that same lens of, How do we keep them busy? Is more better? It must be, because this is how we do it in the school year,” says Pope. “But it’s actually quite the opposite of what we know in terms of child wellbeing. We know that kids need a break. They need time for free, unstructured play. They need downtime. They need time to be not in an adult-driven or an adult-led situation; they need time for kids to lead and take initiative and create their own games and play and be with nature.” A nonacademic summer camp may provide all of those elements, Pope’s research with Challenge Success has shown.
There’s nothing wrong with summer enrichment in and of itself, Pope says — and if your child is legitimately interested in coding or robotics or theater, then it’s great if you can provide opportunities to further that interest. But “give the child some choice and some voice in the matter,” Pope says, and know that “for the majority of kids, they don’t need a particular planned, one-that-costs-money enrichment activity.”
Instead, parents can develop kids’ interests through trips to the library, or by creating a reading challenge (allowing them to select the books they read) and encouraging them to keep a journal where they record their opinions of the books. “Even just giving them a list of chores” can be enriching, Pope says. And since “enrichment” includes play, establish a regular weekday basketball game with neighborhood kids, for example; get a group together and see if parents can rotate taking an afternoon off to be home to supervise. Or ask your kids to help plan a local outing over the weekend, taking advantage of free days at the museum or free walks around historical sites. “You can create summer enrichment opportunities in lots of different ways,” Pope says.