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The Summer Road to Success

By Mary Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #93, 2010.

What you learn when you aren't in school also matters

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Mary Pride

Who would have thought that what we do over summer vacation could be the determining factor in our children’s academic success?

It all started when my oldest daughter, Sarah, called me from Virginia. “I’ve been reading a book called Outliers that explains a ton of things about why some people succeed and others don’t,” she enthused. “You really, really ought to read it. So I bought you a copy on Amazon and it will be arriving soon.”

The book arrived in due course, and it was fascinating, just as Sarah had said. From noticing and explaining why kids with certain birth months dominate youth hockey, to hypothesizing about rice cultivation and Asian math dominance, to the unexpectedly positive effects arrogant white-shoe law firms bequeathed to hustling newcomers, this book went far beyond the usual “IQ-alone-doesn’t-cause-success” formula of so many books about success (and about IQ!).

But the part that really made me sit up and take notice started on page 255. It began, “Summer vacation is a topic seldom mentioned in American educational debates,” and I sighed to myself, “Not another writer who thinks kids should spend all year in a school building!”

But regardless of author Malcolm Gladwell’s political prescriptions, what he uncovered was intriguing.

To put it in simplest terms, the reasons that wealthy kids and middle-income kids outperform lower-income kids in school is not because of what they learn in school or how fast they learn it.

In fact, when studying test results provided by the City of Baltimore, “over the course of five years of elementary school, poor kids ‘out-learn’ the wealthiest kids 189 points to 184 points. They lag behind the middle-class kids by only a modest amount, and, in fact, in one year, second grade, they learn more than the middle- or upper-class kids.”

Yet the wealthy kids do end up beating the middle-class kids, who end up beating the lower-income kids.

Why is that?

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander found out (and Gladwell reported in his book) that the entire difference in results was due to what kids learned (or didn’t learn) over summer vacation.

As Gladwell reported, “The wealthiest kids come back in September and their reading scores have jumped more than 15 points. The poorest kids come back from the holidays and their reading scores have dropped almost 4 points. . . . When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. The reading scores for the rich kids, by contrast, go up by a whopping 52.49 points [over a five-year period]. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” (Emphasis his)

We can learn several things from this:

  • The Swann family’s academic speed and success (see article on page 13) begin to make perfect sense. College at 12? Grad school at 15? All you have to do is follow a consistent plan, year-round. What makes Joyce Swann so amazing is not how early her children graduated, but her incredible perseverance in keeping 10 kids focused year-round, all at once! Remember, she only spent three hours a day and the normal five days a week on homeschool . . . but they also did not take summers off! (I would also like to point out, since Joyce didn’t mention this in her article, that her children completed their college studies at home, as well, aside from a few weeks of mandated campus attendance, to which Joyce accompanied them. So being emotionally mature enough to live on your own in an adult environment was not a factor.)
  • If you don’t want to accelerate your children’s graduation dates, but do want them to excel on high-stakes pre-college tests such as the ACT and SAT, then make sure summer is a time to learn, not to play video games and watch television. Just switch from textbooks and standard curriculum fare to something more real-world and hands-on!

Here are some ideas for how you can use fun summer activities to rocket your children’s learning.

Vacation Rocks!

According to a press release I received from VacationBetter.org, “Analysis of a U.S. Department of Education study found that children who travel over summer break—whether to a beach, historic site, or a national park—did better in reading, math, and general knowledge than their peers who didn’t vacation.” This was not a “fluff” study based on Internet polls. It was conducted with the help of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of the Kindergarten Class database from the United States Department of Education. This year-long study examined children’s early school experiences as well as family and life experiences, such as summer activities. The parents of a subsample of 5,047 children were asked about summer travel. Academic achievement was measured with a series of standardized test in the three areas of math, reading, and general knowledge.

“The data is clear—and gives hard-working parents another reason not to put off a summer vacation trip,” said Dr. Bill Norman, Clemson University. “Providing kids with the experience of travel broadens their horizons and opens up their minds to learning.”

The study explored whether going on a vacation, the number of days spent on a vacation, and places visited were linked to academic achievement in the areas of reading, mathematics, and general knowledge. The results revealed a significant difference in academic achievement correlated with taking a family summer vacation trip. Children that traveled with their family over summer vacation scored higher on academic achievement assessment tests than those who did not travel. Also, children who visited plays or concerts, art or science museums, historical sites, beaches or lakes, national or state parks, and zoos or aquariums had significantly higher academic achievement scores than those who did not.

“To date there has never been a study that plainly shows the correlation between travel and academic achievement,” says Jessica Parker, researcher, Clemson University. “It was interesting to see the impact on a child when they spend vacation time away with their family.”

For Kids of All Ages

The library is the first place to start. If all your children did over summer was to read, that would put them way ahead. Not that I recommend reading 12 hours a day. Some time should also be spent on . . .

Unit studies. If you use a traditional textbook/workbook curriculum, now is your chance to grab some of those great unit studies you’ve had your eyes on.

Art projects. Time to dig out the finger paint, play dough, pipe cleaners, and other fun supplies. If you’re lacking in such things, plan a visit to your local teacher’s store. They love homeschool parents!

Construction projects. Let the kids “help” Dad make a bird feeder or assist him with a real home project. Learn to measure, saw, hammer, and so forth. Safety first, of course!

Sewing/fabric arts. Learn to knit, crochet, embroider, quilt, tat, and sew!

Time line. Make history come alive with a time line project.

Foreign language. No time for this during the school year? Now you can learn French, Spanish, Latin, or Greek!

Dance. Ballet lessons or ballroom dancing, anyone?

Travel. See sidebar to the left and enjoy your guilt-free vacation!

Museums, planetariums, and roadside attractions. Great childhood memories and a great academic boost!

Calligraphy. Improve fine motor skills!

Sports. Learn to play tennis, join a local swim team, learn to play golf, put together a neighborhood pickup baseball game, enjoy Ultimate Frisbee.

Card games and board games. Mental exercise for wet days.

Jobs and chores. Learn to garden, learn to cook, learn to clean, learn to help with laundry.

Organizing projects. Organize those books and clothes!

Camping. Educational or traditional, with family or without, it’s a great childhood experience. See CampParents.org.

Yard games. Croquet, volleyball, horseshoes, badminton, catch fireflies.

Party planning. Birthdays!

Extra Options for Teens

Driving lessons—more time for these in summer, and better road conditions.

Volunteering. Museum docent? Habitat for Humanity? Church?

Get a job. If available, this is a terrific learning experience.

PSAT/SAT/ACT. Prep for the tests!

Books about college and college guides. Pick your dream college.

Visit colleges. Motivation!

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