Summer Learning Opportunities

Even though I really liked school as a child, I always looked forward to summer break. Now that I’m married with three kids and a job, summer holds a very different meaning. I still eagerly anticipate warmer days and the thought of spending more time outdoors. But even that doesn’t always happen. For most parents, our day-to-day responsibilities don’t really change with the seasons anymore; if anything, our responsibilities increase with the added demand of finding things to occupy our kids during the summer months and driving them to and from activities. While parenthood doesn’t afford me the same sense of summertime freedom I once had, I do find myself thinking a lot about the purpose of summer, and the potential learning opportunities that summer offers children.

Now, if I were to ask my own kids to describe summer, they’d very likely use words like “fun,” “friends” and “sleep” – all meaningful aspects of summer. Yet I’m willing to bet “learning” would be absent from most children’s lists. Understandably, there seems to be a common sentiment these days that children simply need a break from the rigors of school. In light of this, I thought it would be interesting to look back at how the role of summer has changed over time:

  • In the early 1800s, the school year reportedly spanned summer (and winter), allowing children to help with spring planting and fall harvesting.
  • By the end of the 1800s, the school year had lengthened and summers were becoming designated as a time for family vacations, as well as a mental break for children.
  • Over the last century, the concept of summer learning – primarily in the form of summer school – was therefore fairly limited to those children who needed extra help. 
  • By the time I was in school, summer school (or anything that even remotely resembled it) was considered a euphemism for punishment.

In recent years, however, it has become clear that summer has the potential to do one of two things: either provide our children creative, fun learning opportunities, or deprive children of ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills. Summer offers a unique learning opportunity for young children – don’t let that time go to waste.  

Now I’m fairly certain my children (and perhaps yours) might be a little nervous to hear me describing their coveted summer as a learning opportunity. But I’m not talking about the rigid, at-your-desk, homework-laden type of learning. Rather, when I think of the quality learning opportunities that summer can offer – through schools, camps, child care programs or other organizations – I envision creative, experiential learning: reading for fun, playing sports, outdoor exploration and active play; and yes, even social learning. After all, a lot of social-emotional learning goes on when your child is making new friends and spending time with them. Which brings me back to my childhood summers. When I really think about what was so special about them, it wasn’t so much getting away from learning itself, but rather the opportunity summer offered me to explore, play, create and, of course, hang out with my BFFs. And if you ask me, knowing what I know now, that’s what 21st century learning should be about.

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