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Summer Downtime

As parents, we often ask what we “should, must, ought to” do for our children over the summer in order to maintain their child’s learning. And when some parents ask this question, they are doing so with the belief that the more academic work a child does over the summer, the better prepared their child for the next school year and the future. After all, families in high income communities often have an array of out of school activities from which to choose - summer coding, engineering, math, writing, intensive clinics in soccer, volleyball, rhythmic gymnastics, hockey, private music lessons, debate and much more. Many children end up with summer schedules just as packed full as their school year.

We sign our children up for these activities because we hope that more structured activities will result in better students, better grades, better colleges and ultimately a better life. We try to avoid “summer learning loss”. Except, as it turns out, this is not true. For children in communities with high incomes, structured activities have an inflection point.

Doing a few summer activities will support student growth. Too many activities, especially academic activities, have the opposite effect and result in diminished academic success and higher levels of stress in children (1). Moreover, having downtime actually provides the most benefit during summer (2). Lastly, research into “summer learning loss” does not apply to students in middle- and upper-class communities. Children in communities like this gain benefit from downtime over the summer (3). Therefore, a balance of summer activities and non-screen downtime becomes critical for our students’ learning and mental health.

What are the benefits of non-screen downtime?When children are “bored” at home, their minds turn towards alleviating their boredom.This process builds the skills and concepts needed in our modern world. For example:

  • Creating, negotiating, and sustaining free play with friends builds communication and collaboration abilities.

  • Negotiating through conflict develops resilience and positive social skills such as listening, compromising, and perspective taking.

  • Exploring a passion (whether that’s the Titanic, origami, baking or dance) requires children to think creatively, solve problems, and ask and answer their own questions.

  • Even helping out around the house has positive benefits for our students. Moreover, these activities are shown to build future school performance in ways that academic summer activities may not.

Enacting these ideas are another story! The next post will be devoted to structuring the summer - our summer of COVID 19 - for optimal, productive downtime - that won't drive us parents crazy!

(1) Li, Obach, H., & Cheng, S. (2015). How much is too much? Debunking the effects of parental over-involvement at home. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association.

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