What is a balanced summer?

Posted by Michael Zavada - 18 April, 2013

bat_editI kind of had to pinch myself a few weeks ago as we were rolling out the redesigned Randolph Summer Experience for 2013. My daughter Collette is now in kindergarten and will be in 1st grade next year. I have a mental picture of her chasing butterflies in the backyard all last summer.

This year I am in a different place. Her education has truly begun. Collette can read and write now, and so her summer rightfully should take on a slightly different shape as we continue to nurture a love of learning. In this mind frame, I find myself feeling a certain pressure to find the best enrichment opportunities for her.

Like every parent, I have been weighing factors like cost, time, experience and skill of the instructor and just how much fun would my daughter have if she enrolled. I thought to myself: would she be better served by an art course or one directed toward math? Would she have more fun at softball or cheer? I also wondered if too many courses would be too much of a good thing? Or, alternatively, could just one week be enough?

The last thing I wanted was my mental picture of the summer to be of Collette lying on the couch watching the Disney Channel for hours on end. As I compared what I was anticipating for her, I found myself answering the questions my team had posed as we redesigned Randolph’s summer program.

Here are the issues we wrestled with as we worked to design the best possible program for the community:

  • Should summer mean the end of learning?
  • Should summer be carefree or can children benefit from some balance and structure?
  • How might parents and schools partner to incorporate the much-needed downtime recommended by renowned child psychologists like Dan Kindlon and Rob Evans while still providing desirable enrichment opportunities?
  • What does new brain research tell us about how a summer should be spent?

As we rolled out the program this past month and are in the middle of our registration surge (full listings and registration available here), we thought we should share with the community some of the research behind our program.

Getting ready for American Girl camp! Getting ready for American Girl camp!

To the question “Is it important to continue learning during the summer?” the obvious answer is yes. After all, Randolph at its core promotes lifelong learning, so why should we think any differently about our summers? Additionally, we came across significant research about the dreaded "Summer Learning Gap."

The Summer Learning Gap is a somewhat ominous term for the loss of learning gains made by students, particularly in schools where high-stakes testing is emphasized to ascertain the status of the school. Several studies suggest there is indeed a "summer learning gap" whereby students lose the gains they have made during the school year by taking two-and-a-half months off in the summer. However, most of these studies looked at populations different from the student body at Randolph and most of the surrounding public schools in Huntsville.

2012-09-22 15.39.39Another question that came up was “What does a balanced summer look like for children?" We thought about how we could partner with parents to incorporate a balanced lifestyle during the summer. Randolph spends significant time planning and working toward the balance between the arts, athletics and academic areas and so we wanted to carry that over to the summer. Last year, the School brought child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Rob Evans to campus to discuss the need for more balance in the lives of students at excellent schools like Randolph. Both suggested that parents and schools need to be careful to provide much needed down-time for students. One danger, they submitted, that exists in schools like Randolph is that we attempt to fill every moment of time, never allowing students an opportunity to catch their collective breath. If there is a hole, we immediately try to fill it.

photoThis is one of the reasons we have decided to only offer camps during the month of June this year. Likewise, this is one of the reasons we decided to continue the option of taking just single classes during our summer program as in the past, rather than offering only full-day options. Finding the right balance between free time and organized activities will vary from child to child. As parents, it is important to help our children find that balance.

In addition to the studies about the learning gap, we also looked at brain research. Last summer, Randolph’s faculty read John Medina’s Brain Rules. Medina suggests that a “summer off” is a bad idea because of the way the brain formats information for later retrieval. Medina explains his fantasy “school of the future” would not have summers off so that information could be processed more slowly during the school year with more periods of review during the day and every couple of weeks (pp. 143-145). While we were not ready to jump to the year-round school approach Medina champions, we did see that some connections in between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next would be wise. We felt that these offerings for the month may just be the ticket to keep these connections charged.

It is important to create learning environments in the summer that allow for innovation. With no set curricula to attend to, our teachers are free to explore new areas of interest and different methods of instruction. The summer classroom then becomes a laboratory of innovation for both students and teachers. And since the added blessing of summer is time, students and teachers have the opportunity to learn about things they only had a chance to encounter during the school year or try things they would not have a chance to do from August to May.

wizardryOur faculty, are in fact, the critical component in the summer experience. We felt that the Randolph Summer Experience would not represent a true Randolph Experience unless our faculty members were the prime camp instructors, unlike other camps that rely heavily on college interns. For faculty, summer offers the opportunity for the convergence of outside interests with their core subject areas in the spirit of innovation.

The proposals this mindset netted were intriguing: App Design, iPads with Clifford, Future City, Moneyball, Wizards of Wonder, Habitats, and Math Masterminds were just a few of the names of well crafted academic proposal offerings. These were combined with athletic and arts staples to create the kind of balance Randolph students have long enjoyed.

In sum, the Randolph Experience now offers more than 90 different camps in arts, athletic and academic enrichment, enabling students to keep learning, keep playing, and to keep growing. It is the perfect place to bridge the summer learning gap and to continue the promotion of lifelong learning in an atmosphere that is all parts invigorating and rich. We hope that your child will join us to discover more this summer than they would on the couch or in a traditional summer classroom setting. They can do this all in Randolph’s fine facilities and engage the familiar and friendly faculty faces during any of our full-day/full-week opportunities or single course options throughout June.

You also might look back to an article from my blog, "Raiders On Drake," about the benefits of summer exercise.

The following research articles and books were used in writing this post:

Alexander, Karl L., Entwisle, Doris R and Steffel-Olson, Linda. "The Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap." The American Sociological Review. Vol. 72, No. 2, Apr., 2007.

Heyns, Barbara. "Schooling and Cognitive Development: Is There a Season for Learning." Society for Research in Child Development. Vol. 58, No. 5, Oct., 1987.

Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. Chapter 6: “Long Term Memory.”

Topics: Academics, art, Arts, Athletics, community, creativity, football, friends, Lower School, math, Middle School, music, parents, science, summer camp, teachers, technology


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