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
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
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
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
Party planning. Birthdays!
Extra Options for Teens
Driving lessons—more time for these in summer, and better road
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!