Sunday, July 25, 2010

Time: The Case Against Summer Vacation?

(cross-posted at

This week's Time magazine cover story deals with a thorny issue: summer vacation. Why is it thorny? Because most of us romanticize it, and yet it does serious academic damage to people who can least afford it.

We all have grand summer memories. Certainly by middle school, this was my favorite time of year, a nearly 3-month break from a plodding school routine. Before I was old enough for a full-time job, I did summer theater and went to academic camps at Northwestern, both of which were far more stimulating than most things that happened during the academic year. (Now, my two full-time summer jobs at age 17 and 18, working at Fazoli's Italian Restaurant, and Osco Drugs, were a different story, but all nostalgia requires a bit of finessing).

We all like to picture Tom Sawyer-esque romps, but viewed more critically, there are many problems with this break now that most of us are no longer farmers. For starters, it leaves working parents scrambling for childcare. I've been amazed how many work-from-home parents seem to be trying to stumble through it, with Facebook posts complaining about the situation. School is not supposed to be childcare, but that is the reality for many people, and most jobs don't only run September-June.

More importantly, though, there's reasonable evidence that taking 2-3 months off from school really harms vulnerable students. This makes perfect sense; artists and musicians need daily practice to stay on top of their game, and students do too. While my summers featured plenty of reading and enrichment opportunities which could be deemed academic "practice" (again, until the Fazoli's/Osco's fun), many kids wind up in what is charmingly referred to as "self-care." That is, they are home alone while their parent or parents work, with watching TV considered the least bad of all possible options. This is not doing anyone any favors.

I thought the Time article made a good case that the solution is not merely to extend the school year (since much of what happens in American schools is sclerotic and ineffective anyway). The solution is to make a better net of summer camps and programs that make learning fun. Frankly, this should happen during the whole school year, but we have to play the cards we are dealt. The link, above, gives an intro to the piece, and the article in the print magazine highlights several great programs from Indianapolis to Corbin, KY where programs provide as much as 10 weeks of 10-hour days which sound like a lot of fun. Think arithmetic and fishing, balancing each other out. Or a fire-fighting themed camp.

For readers here, what are you doing with your kids during summer break? Is it a scramble, or do you have something you always do?


Harriet said...

It's a bit of a scramble. My husband and I both work at home. Now that our son is 9, he doesn't need constant supervision. But he does need to keep busy. We use summer to supplement a school that doesn't give him enough challenge and try to put him in several weeks of gifted camps, which are academically oriented, but also really fun for him. But we also try to make sure that he has some big blocks of free time so he can discover his own projects. Overprogramming doesn't help the creative mind. A little boredom can be a useful thing.

Jo In OKC said...

Mine's at Canada/USA MathCamp for the 2nd year. That's 5 weeks of the summer.

In the past, she's done AwesomeMath (3 weeks), GERI at Purdue (2 weeks), Duke Young Writer's Camp (2 weeks), Concordia Language Village's Lac du Bois (twice for 2 weeks and once for 4 weeks), WCATY's YSSP (1 weeks), and a 2 week trip to France with her teacher.

Her dance studio switches classes to daytime for a 5 week summer session, so she's danced part of every summer since she was 5.

Now that she's in high school, she spends part of each summer doing required summer work for the upcoming school year.

Annie said...

I have definite ideas about summer. It's very important to me that my sons take a break from our school routine, boxed curriculum, and lessons. At the same time, I don't want the learning to stop. I want my sons to see that learning occurs constantly, not just during the school year. I like to think that we just shift our dynamic.

In April, I begin a running list of ideas for summer. This year, the list included a week of theater camp, museums, various reading programs, art projects, opening saving accounts and discussing the banking system, investment and ways to make money, a pool pass, computer games that require thought, documentaries, new board games, piano practice, various science kits and building sets, and day trips to the coast or San Francisco or the mountains.

I believe that everyone needs unstructured time, so I wont tightly schedule the summer, but I pull from the list to give them new experiences.

Anonymous said...

we've found that it is difficult to combine camp with summer homework since camp is more physical and recharge time is needed. It can make summer homework worse than homework during the year. the good academic/GT camps in our area are fairly far away so not feasible. most of the ones the school runs are part day which doesn't work for working parents. Their overnight camps are biased against the 2e child so we haven't tried with my older child.

however, this year my 12 yr old did 3 weeks as a jr counselor at an outdoor ed/conservation camp and is then having 3 weeks off. Seems to give him more time as he is working on some algebra, reading and taking private cello lessons. my 9 yr old 3rd grader to be was a camper at same outdoor camp and is now doing 2 weeks of horse camp. Then she's done and will continue some work on 4th grade math and reading as we go on vacation for most of august to finish the 9 weeks.

I make up my own summer education tasks for my children since the school assigns seriously under challenging packets.

Anonymous said...

same anonymous...I aged my second child...who is really 8

Anonymous said...

I spent most of last year looking for a fun, challenging summer program for my son, who just turned 12. Every one of the GT camps I found, whether academic or not, cost at least $1000 a week; most were $2000 a week, and many had two- or three-week sessions. Yeah, right.

In the end, my son went to a drama camp run by professional theater people (Atlanta Workshop Players' Camp Destiny). It was perfect for him. It was also $800 for one week. He got a half scholarship, and some family friends pitched in a hundred bucks, and we spent more than we could afford. He was in heaven--for one week.

Why does everyone seem to assume that being academically gifted always goes along with being "financially gifted"?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

3 weeks of a play-writing workshop, 2 weeks family vacation in Boston, 1 week play production (of the play from the workshop, he had a small part since we were away for the first 2 weeks of rehearsal), same week assisting at a robotics summer class, 2 weeks teen theater conservatory, 1 week middle-school theater conservatory, then a couple weeks free (probably will have relatives visiting, may start on science fair project). In between everything else, learning Python, reading about a book a day, and watching Macgyver episodes on

LMK said...

All the comments to this post seem to be from people who have enough money to do extra stuff. These are the kids in the article who are gaining during the summer.

The article is NOT about those kids. The kids falling behind are the ones whose parents can't afford to do those camps. Instead of being so self-congratulatory that your kids had the opportunity to do such great stuff, think about all the kids who don't get that chance.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"All the comments to this post seem to be from people who have enough money to do extra stuff. "

True, I just added up all the theater workshops and it came to about $2000 for the 7 weeks (we got no discount for attending only 1 week of the 3-week production workshop, so it could have been 9 weeks). Assisting at the robotics class cost nothing (but he didn't get paid for the work either). There are lots of families in town for whom $2k for the summer would be way too much. There are also a lot of families who spend more than that on frivolous stuff, like fancy clothes or daily fancy coffee drinks.

The most expensive thing was the trip to Boston, which cost us about $5k for the 10 days. I had to do it for a conference that I had to attend (though I don't get reimbursed for it), so about $3k was a business expense.

The Princess Mom said...

The case against summer vacation also assumes kids are going to forget what they've learned over the summer break. Gifted kids don't.

This was always the worst part of my school year. I would start the year determined to develop better work habits from the very beginning. The first two months were review of the previous year's material, which I still remembered, so I didn't need to actually study. Bad habits were ingrained. Cycle begins anew.

Anonymous said...

This is a small town. The rec center offers daycamp for $20/day, but my son tried it last year and hated it. The teachers liked group discipline, as in, "You're all going to sit here on the bleachers until you get quiet." The YMCA daycamp looked fantastic on paper, but was so badly organized as to be dangerous; I pulled my son after two days.

One woman in town is trying to start a Boys and Girls Club, and the rec center and YMCA are supposedly teaming up to put together a free after-school program, but I've volunteered for both groups and NOTHING is happening.

Dr. J said...

Hi Laura. Just found your blog and love it. I am a parent of gifted kids and an educator who has taught at Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. I really like what you are writing (and my daughter, a now senior at Williams College sent me Lockhart's Lament because I have been saying this for a very long time.

Anyway, I just started blogging and would love to (1) include your site on mine, (2) would love if you included mine on your, and (3) would love constructive comments on my blog page:

So please let me know if I can add your blog as a link on mine (and since I am new just let me know how to add it) and let me know if mine meets your criteria for link.

All the best,
Meryl Jaffe

SALLY said...

As a teacher of gifted kids and a mom to gifted kids I have some mixed thoughts about summer vacation.
By June everyone needs a break from school(although my gifted students say they miss the gifted classroom) By August, everyone is sick of summer. I think our summer vacation is too long. However, unless classrooms are air-conditioned, a student could get very miserable by 3PM in a hot classroom. I live in a small community but there are some decent free or inexpensive camps and programs. Parents really need to take advantage of these. I also think classroom teachers should give a summer reading list that is required! Along with that list could be a choice of activities/products that students could choose from and complete at their own leisure during the summer. I am more and more interested in the idea of a "balanced school calendar". Either calendar requires periods of the year when working parents have to make arrangements-that is part of being a good parent!

atxteacher said...

My teaching career started in a school where students moved from one apartment complex to the other based on free month offers. Exactly as you described, there was little food and little supervision for these children in the summer. The school year started reminding students what they had covered the previous year and restarted "school skills." I didn't do this in my GT cluster classroom, but all others did.

Now we have food available in the summer for any child who comes to the school to get it. We need to work on the availability of summer programs for them. Our students, whose parents can't provide it because they work full time (or more than full time having multiple jobs) need mental stimulation throughout the summer. It would benefit all students - the ones whose parents can provide summer opportunities wouldn't have sit through all the remediation at the start of the year.

I read a great article in a parenting magazine - can't remember which one - which described how three or four families put together their own co-op summer camp. Each family planned a full week of activities based ona theme and took care of the kids for that week during the day. Through the co-op, each kid got 4 weeks of camp and no parent had to take off more than a week of work. They did crafty things and neighborhood field trips which were free or really cheap. It was a really neat solution to summer childcare!

Anonymous said...

I don’t think eliminating summer vacation will solve our learning problems in this country. The kids deserve a break. This is my take on this issue in 90 seconds:

Alexis Avila


Prepped & Polished

Tutoring, College Counseling, Test Prep

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of families coming together to creat co-op camps of sort-awesome! When my kids were little we (usually groups of moms with kids) would plan day-trips together! Usually we went to places that were free or cheap!
Usually communitiy librairies and churches have free day-camps also.
No child should be bored in the summer. Growing up in the 60's my mornings were full of chores, piano practicing and then by noon hopefully some free time at the city park or pool. I have wonderful summer memories and we could not afford fancy vacations at all!!

Anonymous said...

I just read this article yesterday. I am a gifted coordinator and a parent of a now adult gifted student. We were not finacially gifted as posted earlier. However there were many day outings and creative opportunities that we created or took advantage of rather than expensive camps.

I work in a middle school and one summer wrote a grant to give six girls from low SES homes the experiences my daughter had. The program was only 3 weeks long. After brainstorming multiple things to do we finalized a list to do things such as going to a raptor center, parks, a news station, museums, cooking, making fleece pillows etc. This was a small program, and nothing was anything other than what many middle class kids do, but it did prevent the backward summer slide that was the focus of the Time article.

Anonymous said...

"All the comments to this post seem to be from people who have enough money to do extra stuff. "

In my area, money isn't even the problem so much as logistics. Work for a living? Then you're out of luck, because most of the summer camps are 3 - 6 hours a day. No matter how fantabulous a camp might be, a 2-week (10 day) program nullifies my entire year's vacation (8 days/year).

My county is very long (more than an hour to drive one end to another) and the county-sponsored camps are also always at the far end of the county, meaning a 2-hour commute twice a day for the parent. Completely unfeasible. Washington DC is a half-hour from my house, but parking can cost $30 day and public transportation runs $15 per person round trip, which also makes it completely un-doable for a day trip.

Vanessa/Chelsea said...

I have 2 gifted daughters...5 and 8. And we couldn't even afford swim camp. We go to the beach, the library, the then 4year-old learned to ride her bike, tie her shoes, and'm a stay at home mom (which is why the money problem) and have enriched my own children's summer this year. 8-year-old does Math for gifted students and regular math, as well as reading comprehension, and reading lots. She has learned to love Lego building kits and has getten good at Photoshop. She helped me paint her bedroom and has cooked the family many dinners. These are skills that I think are super important - especially for gifted children, who sometimes lack in the area of common sense.

lgm said...

Most younger kids in this area who have both parents working spend the summer with relatives..grandma, a SAHM aunt., etc.

High schoolers either work or go to summer enrichment programs at the high school. These are partially grant funded and most earn a credit.

My kids ran, swam, and pursued some of the passions that they didn't have time for during school.
I don't beleive more school is the answer,because school is cutting out electives as the management desperately reallocates those teachers to rTi and remedial in the hope of improving the 4 yr grad rate. Even now, seniors are told to dual enroll at the CC if they don't like study hall. (I'm upstate in a district that is only 15% Free/red lunch).