We've circulated the myth that long summer breaks from school originated in an agrarian time for so long that we believe it. Kids helped out on the farm during the summer, right? Wrong. Actually, families wanted their kids at home in the spring, for planting, and in the fall, for harvesting. In rural areas, they attended school in the summer and winter.
In School's In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools, author Kenneth Gold tells us that the urban school schedule was very different with schools open basically all year. Students attended when they could. In 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days a year in contrast with the average 180 days a year they are open today. Imagine being in crowded cities in the days before air-conditioning! Those who could afford it took off for cooler places during the summers.
By the late 19th century, many wanted to standardize the school schedules across rural and urban areas. The long summer break was a compromise solution, although it's hard to see how that served the needs of rural families. So the truth is that the long summer break has nothing at all to do with our agrarian past.
That summer break gave teachers time to regroup and refresh and gave students a stretch of freedom from schedules that possibly benefited a few creative and resourceful kids. Studies show over and over, though, that for most, there is a "learning slide" during that long summer break.
The National Summer Learning Association presents these facts:
- Research during 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer than on the same tests at the beginning of the summer.
- Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months.
- The learning slide is particularly devastating for lower-income young people, affecting their ability to graduate from high school or attend college. Unequal access to summer learning opportunities accounts for more than half the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income young people.
- Most children gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break.
An NPR video shows how one West Virginia school provides a year-round program and how it benefits students. If schools in your area have not yet moved in this direction, though, there are things that all families can do to prevent summer brain drain. Leave planning and execution of projects to the kids, a great learning experience in itself -- and let the rest of the family act as consultants at meal time:
- Put a home computer to work effectively for research. Kids can research to find out how to do a project, what they need to complete it, costs, etc. They can discuss their plan at meal time.
- Use your home computer to locate free local activities or appropriate learning websites (library programs, Smithsonian Kids Collecting, National Geographic Kids, PBS Kids, PBS Learning Media and more). Have the list on hand, make assignments, and discuss results at meal time.
- Emailing friends and family and journaling are great activities to encourage writing and maintain skills. Plan emailing time into each day, and as with anything on the internet, it's a good idea to exercise some supervision. Journaling is private writing space. Reserve time for this as well, but give each child or young person their own journal and plan a time for hand-written journaling. Keep a box of key word prompts, and each person in the family can drop a slip of paper with a word or two into it whenever they think of one.
- Try a picture journal! An online app can help with this if the camera is a phone. Each picture is worth a 1000 words but can also provide practice with writing 1000 words telling the story.
- Set up a blog with your kids -- they can share one or have their very own. There are free options online with easy templates. Your kids can come up with their own focal point, things they want to write and post or pictures they want to share.
- Kids can create a comic strip with a daily edition to share at meal time or in a blog.
- Find contests to enter -- writing, science, art.
- If you're taking a summer vacation, let the kids map the trip and research places they'd like to stop. They can even work out a budget and check costs! Of course, discuss the plan and the progress at meal time.
- Family reading time is an old standard, and it's an amazing practice in so many ways. Choose books at the library you can all enjoy together, and take turns reading. For those who enjoy some drama, choose a play and take parts, even a Shakespeare play! Speaking the language with expression brings it alive. Create a family book club or drama club, as the girls did in Little Women.
- Have your kids track the weather, give the predictions at meal time and explain what it means. If they chart the weather, they can go back and look at patterns, compare it with earlier years, and discuss what's happening. They'll not only learn about weather but about how to make and read tables and charts.
- Kids can plan and make family meals. They can figure out what they're going to make, check out nutritional content, create a shopping list, check on prices, cook using recipes and measurements, plan the table discussion, and set and clear the table. They can even research sources of food, what the supply chain was that brought it to their table. Family meal planning like this becomes an extended project with lots of learning opportunities. Stay in touch with progress at family meal times.
Well, that old agrarian myth, even if it's not true does have some merit! Farming and gardening are great learning experiences, requiring ingenuity and a lot of skills. So many of us live in urban areas, but that doesn't mean kids can't participate in the life cycle through gardening.
There are lots of resources and ideas for "urban gardening" online on websites and on Pinterest. Tiny spaces near windows or on porches can produce a lot! Again, let the kids research, plan it and budget it with you as consultant. Better yet, they can blog about their progress or create a photo journal. Check out this video of a PVC pipe garden, perfect for a small deck.