When I began to write this post, I intended for it to be a simple little feature about the benefits of summer breaks on child development. I thought it would be easy to find a multitude of articles touting the need for breaks to rest, restore and regenerate.
Instead, I found heading after heading about summer learning loss. According to one study, using data from over half a million students in grades 2-9, students on average lost between 25–30% of their school-year learning over the summer. Many believe that year-round school is the proposed remedy to this learning loss.
I learned that summer breaks began roughly 100 years ago, largely due to the “urban island effect,” making it too hot for children to sit in a classroom during the summer. The argument goes, now that we have air conditioning, it is quite feasible to have school during the summer months. Additionally, if children were in school year-round, this would alleviate the challenges of finding summer childcare. So, why not have school year-round?
Well, just as adults need vacations, children do too. Adults use vacations to unwind from work and recharge their batteries. Daycare and school are work for kids too after all, where they keep appointments, adhere to rules, concentrate and perform. They often have to make compromises during social interactions. Sometimes, they have to give in. Other times, they assert themselves. This can be stressful for kids. And stress over an extended period negatively impacts children’s health—leading to stomach aches, headaches, difficulty concentrating or falling asleep, lack of appetite and irritability.
Summer breaks help children in several ways. Breaks from school are essential for children to process what they have learned and to enjoy time off from tasks.
The seemingly endless amount of time that children can spend with their parents and siblings creates the feeling of being noticed. Spending time together significantly strengthens a child’s self-confidence and the parent-child relationship.
Family holidays are also an essential part of summer breaks. Children on vacation enjoy the opportunity to engage playfully with their family members. A study by the British Family Holiday Association from 2015 reports 49% of the study participants identified the memory of a family vacation as the most beautiful one of their lives.
In addition to spending time with the family, free time during summer breaks is crucial for a child’s health, well-being, and development. There is no homework; there are no appointments; kids lose track of time. Maybe they even get bored. Nothing offers an equal opportunity for self-determination and creativity like boredom. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it:
For the thinker and for all inventive spirits, boredom is the unpleasant ‘calm’ of the soul which precedes the happy voyage and the dancing breezes.
Yet, the brain is not on vacation. Vacations do not mean stagnation. During a family vacation, two systems in the brain’s limbic area are activated: the play system and the seeking system, as identified by Dr. Jaak Panksepp. The former reacts to experiences of the senses, such as the feeling of sand between one’s toes or the sound of nature. The latter is trained while exploring a new environment. Once these two systems are activated, the brain releases happiness hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine. These substances lower the stress level and promote well-being.
The play and seeking systems behave similarly to muscles: the more regularly and intensively trained, the faster the underlying behavior becomes a habit, and the resulting emotions and skills become an integral part of the personality. While being on vacation, children automatically learn, provided they have the opportunity to play in an enriched environment and to satisfy their natural curiosity.
In addition to the benefits of family connection, a break from the school stress and intuitive play/seek learning, your child’s teachers (including homeschooling parents) need breaks too; to rest, to inspire and to regenerate.
Thus, embrace summer breaks! Give your children time to rest, to play, to pursue some of their own interests and to become bored. Take some time yourself to play with them.