In Defense of Summer Vacation

by Benjamin Studebaker

Every year I find myself reading some number of articles calling for an end to summer vacation–the practice of giving kids a summer break from school. The argument is typically made with an appeal to the the “summer learning loss” or “summer slide”, the tendency for kids to learn less during the summer than they do while in school, or even to regress academically.  Adding further fuel to the argument is the tendency for the achievement gap, the difference in academic performance between higher and lower income students, to expand during the summer months. Opponents of summer vacation deem it an anachronism from a more rural, less air-conditioned age, and think we ought to do away with it altogether. Today, I seek to challenge these views.

I’m not going to argue that summer doesn’t reduce the rate at which students progress on the traditional, test-measured metrics. Nor am I going to argue that summer doesn’t increase the size of the gap between rich students, who have tranquil home lives and internet access, and poor students, who often return to less than ideal environments. The research is pretty air tight on that front:

Most kids probably aren’t spending their summers learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, that much is true. However, at this point in the discussion, opponents of summer vacation make a fairly large leap. They assume that if kids aren’t learning the three R’s, they must be learning nothing–the summer vacation must be wasted time.

This assumption is indefensible. There are many skills students acquire during the summer at a faster rate than they acquire them during the school year. In particular, there is one essential skill our schools ignore that summers are a panacea for–creativity.

During the school year, students spend their days taking orders from teachers and parents. They do assignments, they study, they take tests, and so on. They occasionally get short recesses, there’s less recess to go around all the time in recent years–unstructured time for the average American student fell from 57 hours per week in 1983 to 48 hours in 2003. Schools are cutting recesses to increase the time available for academic subjects under the influence of legislation like No Child Left Behind. 40% of schools have cut recess time since that law was passed. The benefits of unstructured time for play are quite many, even for adults, let alone for children.

Summer vacation is really one big, long, extended recess. It’s a chunk of time for children to play, to recharge, to explore interests that don’t receive class time in school, to self-manage their time without the constant imposition of structure. Summer is a time to play sports, to do art, to play games, to socialize with friends, to explore hobbies and subjects outside the curriculum.

I see one of the strongest arguments for keeping summer vacation in a piece of evidence commonly appealed to by its opponents. Opponents of summer vacation point to just how many additional days of school are on the calendars of many other countries:

Days of School by Country

I’d like to draw attention to the disparity between the United States and China. Often it is argued that Chinese students’ success in math/science is a harbinger of American doom, with the difference in school days being appealed to. The subtext of the argument is that we Americans are lazy and too permissive, that we indulge our children and don’t push them enough.

But think about how the Chinese economy grows. This is not a country that has been inventing fabulous things that we all want to buy. Americans and Europeans make products in China because the labor there is cheap. The products are designed by Americans and Europeans, it’s American and European intellectual capital at work. When the Chinese do make products of their own, the tendency is for them to be reverse engineered American or European products–point being, they’re not very original. There is a fundamental weakness of creativity in China. I’m not the only one to notice, either–Atlantic Cities  details a study done by Florida, Mellander, and Qian, indicating three principle issues with Chinese creativity:

  • China has a small creative and innovating class to begin with.
  • That class is contained in three urban areas and does not spill out to the rest of the country.
  • Worse, even where the creative class is strong, it seems disconnected from Chinese economic performance.

That third one is most relevant to our summer vacation argument–even Chinese college grads are ineffective at innovating. As Florida puts it:

Worse, China’s overall technological and economic performance appears to be disconnected from its human capital and knowledge-based assets. Moving forward, China is likely to face substantial obstacles in transitioning from its current industrial stage of development to a more knowledge-based economy.

It’s easy to explain away the first two problems as a consequence of China’s industrial youth, but the third problem speaks to an issue with how China is industrializing. China’s creative class, to whatever extent it exists, should directly connect into China’s economy and produce innovation. The fact that it doesn’t is indicative of problems with that creative class–it’s just not that creative in the first place because its upbringing was overly regimented and overly structured. You don’t develop creative skills by taking orders from parents and teachers. It’s not something adults can teach you. You develop them by exploring the world on your own and by owning your own time.

That said, the achievement gap is still a problem–the home environments of poor students have a greater opportunity to impede their growth and development during the summer, both academically and otherwise. But we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater–summer vacation, like recess, is good, we just need to do more to ensure that it is good for all students and not merely those with naturally benign home environments.  Recess’ value is indisputable because all students have access to the same kind of recess regardless of socioeconomic status or home environment. We need policies that help poor kids get just as much out of their summers as their well-off counterparts do.

This means junior sports, it means state-financed summer activities for lower income kids. But we don’t want to just lay more imposed structures on kids just to get them off the streets or out of the house–that unstructured time is valuable if done right. So we also need to help poor kids by helping poor parents. Improve the quality of their home lives so that when they’re playing and exploring at home, they do so in a healthy environment conducive to their success. That means we need better public services in poor areas, we need anti-poverty policies, we need to, you know, actually try to help poor people.

What we don’t need to do is level-down, destroying the benefits of summer vacation for all because those benefits are distributed unevenly. To give up summer vacation would be to give up our creative edge, our technological edge, and, ultimately, our political edge. Less innovation means less economic growth, less wealth, more poverty, more of the very problems opponents of summer vacation are seeking to avoid. It also makes for a staler culture–America is not merely a center of technological innovation, but of the arts. Movies, music, books, television, theater, and so on all require a creative population, not a regimented one.

In sum, killing summer vacation would contribute to a decline of the arts and sciences in the United States, and ultimately of the United States as a state. It’s a foolish idea, and it’s a consequence of an attitude toward children and toward education that only takes into account reading, math, and not much else. That attitude is a poison, and it needs to go.