The schedule is a grind. Challenging academics, after-school clubs, sports practices and even part-time jobs — kids are constantly on the go. And with summer on the horizon, parents are already cooking up ways to combat the dreaded slide — where kids forget the skills and concepts they just spent nine months learning — that will occur if they let up too much.
But when will kids ever get a break if summer is totally programmed with mile-long reading lists, overtly educational camps and more?
“There’s a risk of burnout if you don’t give the brain a chance to recharge,” says Richard Smith, a technology and media instructor at Lake Catholic High School. “Athletes have to take days off to give their bodies a chance to rebound, and it’s no different with the human brain.”
But Smith is also quick to point out that the summer slide is a real thing. Students can lose some of the achievement gains they made during the school year.
“If you don’t do anything [academic] over the summer, you run the risk of losing what you attained,” Smith says, noting that it’s important to find a happy balance. “Learning, but not overkill.”
But the risk of summer brain drain might not be as serious as we thought, according to Paul T. von Hippel, a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who notes flaws in the research on summer learning loss. He questions how steep the summer slide really is. In an Education Next article from June 2019, he wrote that he used to be a big believer in summer learning loss, but that his belief has been shaken.
The summer slide concept is based on old data, von Hippel wrote in the article. And, he thinks it’s overstated because the research he and his colleagues conducted could not replicate studies that were the basis of the summer slide theory.
Summer learning can help some students close achievement gaps, but a healthy break won’t amplify achievement gaps across student populations, based on what von Hippel discovered when he tried to replicate the 1980s test score study that evidenced the summer slide.
Should parents be concerned about the summer slide? Or, are we so focused on programming a summer schedule that students are missing out on developmentally enriching, less structured opportunities to make social connections, let their minds wander, be creative and just be?
Put simply, what’s wrong with sleeping in late and making mud pies?
Christine Ronzi found ways for her daughter Kristin, now 25 and a graduate school student at University of Pittsburgh, to learn by discovery during summertime.
“Learning shouldn’t be a chore,” says Ronzi, who is in her 19th year teaching biology and anatomy at Lake Catholic. “In the summer, we can find ways to provide experiences so they can grow into lifelong learners.”
For Ronzi, introducing her daughter, who attended Hathaway Brown, to fresh social environments was important because she was an only child.
“We tried camps where she could socialize with kids she might not normally see during the school year. She could meet new people, and that takes you out of your comfort zone,” Ronzi says, noting how important that is as a developmental skill.
They spent days at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, taking walks and nurturing a growing appreciation for nature.
“That is something that many parents want to instill in their children,” Ronzi says.
Her daughter probably had no idea she was learning. There weren’t any notebooks, weekslong projects or quizzes.
Sure, Kristin practiced some algebra on her own, and she worked with her parents on subjects such as science and history. Her dad is also a teacher.
“We tackled some basics to make life easier once she got to class,” Ronzi says. “You can still present ideas and teach — and make it fun.”
As a teacher, Ronzi assigns her honors classes a book to read during the summer. Then, the students do a hands-on project rather than writing a report. She asked them to identify parts of the book that impressed them, then take the summer to collect a few items to represent those passages and place them in a box. She called it a “book in a box.” The students presented their boxes to the class after summer.
Lauren Thome, a second grade teacher at Lake Ridge Academy, says summer discovery should be about learning, experiencing and keeping skills fresh. Camps are a great way to accomplish that, especially programs that incorporate outdoor activities, field trips, hands-on projects and free time.
Lake Ridge Academy and other independent schools offer camps that check these boxes. Thome leads a six-week Discovery Camp with themed weeks. Last year, one week focused on thinking globally. Students visited the West Side Market in Cleveland and participated in a scavenger hunt to find foods from various cultures. Then, they cooked together.
A camp can provide well-rounded experiences away from technology, which is a concern among parents who recognize that free time often translates to screen time.
“We are seeing more screen time and staying indoors instead of hands-on experiences,” Thome says.
Smith acknowledges the importance of this balance, adding that it’s a hard one for parents and requires some planning.
“For my own children, we set limits on how long they can use the screen and we encourage activities like taking dance class or gymnastics so they can interact on different levels,” he says.
At the same time, Smith encourages technology use in his robotics camps for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
“They learn coding, how to build and they are being creative,” he relates. “They learn the ins and outs of the robot, and they also get a chance to play and collaborate.”
As opposed to the regimented class schedule of the school year, summer is an opportunity for students to learn by doing.
“That keeps students fresh while giving them chances to experience things they might not have time for during the school-year,” Smith says.
Investigate the city. Go to the zoo. Enrolling in the library’s summer reading program. Take a hike. Experiment. Volunteer at a local charity. Visit a museum.
Simply try something new.
Thome describes an elementary-age theater camp at Lake Ridge as a way students can learn and grow without relying on academic structures.
“After one week, it’s amazing to see what they learn while putting on a musical — and it’s fun to see how the children develop,” she says. “Some of them are nervous, but they try something new and it’s a win for all.”
Reading, math and other concepts are important subjects that can suffer from the summer slide, but it’s important for kids to be exposed to even more.
“For us, the social curriculum is just as important as the academic curriculum,” Thome adds. “We want to develop the whole child.”
For parents, building a balanced summer starts with identifying your children’s interests.
“When they explore their interests, they can also learn more about what they might want to do when they get older — and parents can keep that conversation going through the years,” Smith says.
Next, determine what is actually doable in terms of transportation and other activities such as planned family vacations. Get out the calendar, and record everything so everyone can stay accountable — but don’t rush to program every day.
Finally, involve children in the logistics.
“Let the children help plan,” Smith says, pointing out the critical thinking involved. “Communicate who will pick them up and drop them off, and they might gain an appreciation that you are sacrificing time and effort to get them to activities.”
And, don’t forget to allow time for de-programming.
“Sometimes, parents want their kids to excel in everything, and it can feel like too much of a push,” Ronzi says. “Kids need to have an opportunity to have experiences to discover.”
Between softball practice, soccer camp, a STEM program and summer reading — kids need a break.
“It’s good for them to do things they like, but every day doesn’t need to be filled with activity,” Ronzi says. “Kids have got to be able to just be.”