For four weeks this summer, my rising sixth-grader and a few of her friends will swap swimming for pre-algebra and crafts for creative writing. Along with catching fireflies and scratching mosquito bites, they’ll spend some time indoors, dissecting insects. I’ve been warned that there is homework, too. And tests. It is going to be a long July.
This is all part of a more academic camp designed to get departing elementary school kids ready for the rigor of middle school. While none of this was required, a few of us parents thought it would be a good idea to try to squeeze a little more learning out of time spent at camps we have to pay for anyway.
After all, we’ve been repeatedly warned about summer brain drain, and as we prepare for a new chapter in our kids’ education, we’re a little scared. I’m also more than a little torn.
Summer brain drain, like attachment parenting and mindfulness, wasn’t really a thing a generation ago. I’m sure our brains did atrophy as we rode our bikes, splashed in the pool and watched TV all summer, but nobody seemed too worried. We’d just spent nine months working our brains. Like the athlete who goes home and rests after a big game, we deserved a break. Didn’t we?
These days, however, parents are fed some sobering statistics. Students, we are told, on average lose about two months of progress in reading and math over the summer. Even more alarming, if not addressed, the loss can be cumulative, making it harder to catch up as each summer passes, severely affecting progress and the potential for long-term success. Schools are arming us for battle. Not only has summer vacation shrunk to a measly nine weeks here in Washington, but students are often sent home with summer packets, reading lists and assignments to be handed in on the first day back.
All this, despite the fact that the data on brain drain is actually complicated. Research also tells us that physical activity is essential for optimal brain performance, that brains need breaks to recharge and that people also learn in unstructured ways. Digging for insects in the dirt may be just as beneficial as dissecting them in a lab. Ultimately, most kids need, and learn from, both kinds of experiences.
So why, skeptic that I am, am I signing up to battle brain drain?
It’s partly practical. At 10, a kid is still too young to be unaccompanied all day, but is starting to get a little bored with some of the highly curated activities offered at traditional camps. They need supervision but they crave more stimulation. Planning the summer is always a challenge for working parents who can’t realistically let their kids dig in the dirt for eight hours. And if the days are going to be highly structured — and expensive — anyway, I got to thinking about the value I’d be getting. A little less coddling and more challenge seems a reasonable exchange.
But even more than that, I realize that it’s a bit futile to debate whether brain drain is real at a time when kids are assessed at the start of the school year and regularly thereafter. Brain drain is real because we’ve essentially created a system that measures progress early and often and leaves no room for a gradual return to peak performance in the fall.
I’m still doubtful that lost learning over multiple summers will, over time, leave a kid a year or more behind. That’s like saying the time we spend sleeping will add up to years of lost income. But I like to think that, like car seats and no-smoking zones, some of the newer approaches to raising and educating kids are an improvement over the way it used to be. And since I have to send my kid somewhere, I’m open to trying four weeks of academics … sandwiched between two vacations.
As a parent who can neither fully embrace nor fully dismiss the concept of summer brain drain, I’m left with a long to-do list for the break: Learning and vegging, studying and playing, having new adventures and reviewing last year’s math. I hope we can get to all of it in nine weeks.
Andrea Orr is a Washington writer and mother.