Make The Summer Equal Parts Learning And Leisure

By Victoria Kidd

Falling between spring and autumn is a three-month period beloved by school aged children everywhere. Summer is a time idealized in song and on screen. In movies, it’s depicted as a time when Dirty Dancing’s Johnny Castle could make sure that “nobody puts Baby in the corner.” The kids of The Sandlot could share a coming-of-age story about a neighborhood dog they called “The Beast” and a baseball autographed by “some girl named Babe Ruth.” Musically, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John—playing Danny and Sandy in the summer blockbuster Grease—add to the season’s soundtrack with Summer Nights, while Alice Cooper wails “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks” in the 1972 single, School’s Out.

There still is a prevailing view that summer should be a period of unrestrained and unstructured leisure, but there is increasing evidence to support that including periods of scholarship or academic investigation in summer plans is immensely important for school-aged children. Advocating for a revised view of summer is the National Summer Learning Association, one of the many educationally focused organizations working to help parents and caregivers better understand how critical it is to keep students engaged in the summer months.

Monica Logan, vice president of program and systems quality for the association, explains that the organization is focused on finding ways to make sure all students—regardless of socioeconomic factors—have access to summer learning experiences that support healthy development, reduce achievement gaps, and prepare students for life post-graduation. The misconception is that such advocacy could lead to a summer without fun, but Logan conveys that is simply not the case.

“We think kids should have fun, engaging, and enriching summers,” she says. “We are not advocating for kids to be sitting in hot school buildings taking courses that are essentially an extension of the school year. We want kids to have opportunities that expand on what happens during the school year. These are rich and robust experiences. Summers are a time to innovatively engage with new ideas—be it through travel, summer camps, or other opportunities. These opportunities are not being taken advantage of to the full extent.”

Logan says that missing the chance to learn over the summer can have significant and long-term implications for children and youth, and she isn’t alone in that assessment.

In a 2011 investigative report, NBC News shared with its viewers some information concerning what it called “the summer learning loss.” The piece examined the grade readiness of two children: one who spent summers learning and another who was unable to do so. Following these two children through their early formative years, NBC anchor Brian Williams relayed that after the first grade, the student exposed to learning opportunities over the summer moves ahead (in terms of held knowledge and aptitude for learning) by one month. It is here where the achievement gap between the students will start.

The next summer, the one following first grade, affords more opportunities for learning for one student, again moving the summer learner’s knowledge base and capacities ahead. The student who did not participate in any summer activities actually loses knowledge and grade readiness during that period. Each summer, the story is the same. One student advances, while the other who had limited opportunities for learning falls behind. According to the investigative report, “By the end of the fifth grade, the gap between the children is three and a half years.”

That is an astounding statement. The report’s conclusion is made clear in the anchor’s assertion that “it is impossible to ever catch up. It’s impossible to close the gap. No matter how much high-quality learning goes on between September and June, every year the gap widens.” (You can view the NBC report by visiting

A concurring, and perhaps more compelling argument that listless summers impact students negatively is offered in the research of Duke University Professor Harris Cooper. A parent and former school board member, Cooper was interested in learning about the impacts that proposed reductions in federal funding for summer school support would have. He conducted a “meta-analysis,” which is a means of reconciling results from different studies and information sources to identify patterns and derive conclusions.

What he found was that students do forget things over the summer. They lose math skills, and some lose reading skills. He continued his research into the subject and eventually published an article called “The Effects Of Summer Vacation On Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative And Meta-Analytic Review.” (The article first appeared in a national magazine called Review of Educational Research.)

Essentially, Cooper’s work found that at best, student capabilities and academic growth remained stagnant over the summer. At worst, the data showed some students losing as much as three months worth of education during the summer break. In an interview with the aforementioned National Summer Learning Association, Cooper says, “We need to dispense with romanticized notions associated with the traditional summer break, look at what’s really going on, and consider the consequences. People have a vision of what summer vacation ought to be that may not coincide with the reality for most kids.”

So the implication is that summer learning opportunities are not simply a means to keep children and young adults occupied over the summer’s break from school, although for many parents that is a key element in the decision to enroll their children in summer camps and other activities. If the research is to be believed—and there is certainly a wide range of available data on the subject to support it—summer learning opportunities are essential to keeping students on par with their peers and ready to learn when school starts again. The National Summer Learning Association and other education-focused advocacy groups take the position that embracing summer learning opportunities does not have to be essentially a three-month sentence of summer boredom.

“Summers are really an opportunity to accelerate achievement,” Logan stresses. “There are so many great opportunities to be active, to have fun, and to be engaged over those few months. This learning doesn’t have to feel school-like. The summer can be a learning laboratory and an exciting time for kids to deepen their experiences through project-based learning or other means that provide a chance to enjoy being physically and mentally engaged.”

For Clarke County children and youth, summer learning opportunities are available across a wide range of disciplines and subjects. From the nature day camps offered by Blandy Experimental Farm and the art camps of Opus Oaks to the summer fitness programs of Body Renew Fitness and junior golf instruction provided by Bryce Resort, local students can gain exposure to science, technology, engineering, math, physical fitness, art, culture, and anything else you can think of.

The price ranges are as varied as the offerings.

If you have a school-aged child or young adult, consider unplugging the video games and limiting Netflix availability for a few hours a day while engaging your young charges in a summer learning opportunity. We have included information for a few local camps and programs in this issue. If we have missed a great camp or summer learning opportunity, let us know on Facebook. We’d love to see your pictures, read about your projects, and start a real discussion about the value of making the summer equal parts learning and leisure for your family.