The Case for Summer Vacation

Young siblings running in fieldStanding in line a few weeks ago at my local Whole Foods market, Time magazine caught my eye. Its cover had an idyllic full-page picture of a young boy skipping stones on a pond, with the headline “The Case Against Summer Vacation.” I caught my breath and groaned, shaking my head in dismay. The subtitle read, “We romanticize it. But all that downtime is making our children fall behind.”

I have since read the article. Some of the concern is directed to lower income children who are often three grade levels behind their more affluent peers, according to the article. Certainly, more enrichment needs to go to all schools, especially those in underprivileged areas. Another point the author makes is that summer vacation is a throwback to an agrarian life where children helped out on the farm. As an alternative, he suggests that year-round school with shorter breaks every three months would fit our current lifestyle better. If this academic year could be structured in a way that supports working parents’ needs and provides enriching activities for children—not just daycare camps—this proposal might work. The author’s depiction of the dismal state of education for both children and teachers is accurate, too, but none of these concerns account for my sense of dismay.

My dismay arises from the shortsighted view that keeping up with the pack in the three Rs is the most important concern we have for our children. This teaches them that their value lies in how well they perform. We are producing stressed out kids who will grow into stressed out adults—adults who are prone to suffer from a sense of meaninglessness that may result in depression, addiction, or anxiety.

I am also dismayed with the idea that free, unstructured time for children is devalued and not seen as an essential part of learning and development. As a psychotherapist with a practice that includes play therapy, I have deep regard for the value of play. Play offers a time and space for children to enter the world of “what if?” It is a place to learn and discover new ways to experience the self and the world. It is not a waste of time, but a time to regroup and unwind.

In my practice every week I see children and parents who are stressed and worried. They need a break, not just more of the same pressure. Many of the children I see are labeled ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which often could be renamed ARAE, adverse reaction to long-term exposure to artificial environments.

In his award winning book the Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv cites a University of Illinois study. In this study, families of children 7-12 who have been labeled ADHD were asked to keep a log of the kinds of activities that left their child behaving especially well or especially poorly. One of the things the study revealed was that prolonged time indoors left ADHD children in the worst shape. What left them in the best shape was having time outdoors in natural settings.

Louv writes:

If it is true that being in nature reduces the symptoms of ADHD, then the converse may also be true: ADHD may be a set of symptoms aggravated by lack of exposure to nature. By this line of thinking . . . the real disorder is less in the child than it is in the imposed, artificial environment. Viewed from this angle, a society that has disengaged the child from nature and natural play is most certainly disordered, if well-meaning.

Maybe the headline on the cover of Time, with the idyllic picture of the young boy at a pond, should read “The Case for Stone-Skipping, Park-Playing, and Beach-Going.”

Our children are thriving, and they gain even more as they have carefree time, especially out-of-doors.

© Copyright 2010 by Inge Dean, MS, LMFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • defoe

    September 1st, 2010 at 3:41 AM

    it would be great if schools can actually organize camps for kids and make them get involved in doing something constructive.this will help the kids learn something new and will also give a breather to parents.
    to make sure all kids attend it,they could probably award credits to the ones that actually complete these short courses!

  • Georgia

    September 1st, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    The 3 Rs are not why we have kids but if we want them to be able to keep up with the ebst and the brightest in the world, or to be the best and the brightest I agree that something has to be done to reverse how much information they retain over the extended smmer breaks. And think about ho much easier it would be for many parents to have child care throughout the year in shorter intervals instead of having to juggle the whole summer. If I was a kid the idea of year round school would definitely appeal.

  • BN

    September 1st, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    It would be best for kids to be sent to nature camps that would give them the right amount of time and exposure with nature and activities outdoors and would also let the parents rest a little, knowing that they need not run around and keep an eye on their child all the time.

  • Mary Alice Long, PhD

    September 6th, 2010 at 8:12 AM

    I too noticed Time magazine’s lead article on The Case Against Summer Vacation. As a play consultant & advocate I want to see our current conversation about the value of play and its benefits expand to include both children, parents, grandparents, and couples. Even the military community has as part of its mission–you guessed it, play!
    Summer vacation, recess, time outside, imagination & fantasy play, even lunchtime are being dismissed as unnecessary intrusions into our serious lives. It is true that many of our urban areas do not have adequate playgrounds or places like YMCAs, Boys & Girl Clubs and that streets are so wide and full of traffic that children can no longer safely cross the street to play with friends. Working parents as the Time article describes are forced to keep their children indoors while they are at work with safety concerns in mind. Parents in many communities are shuffling their children from one activity to the next as a precursor to their work lives to come. KaBOOM! is an example of a play organization devoted to building playgrounds and spreading the word about the need for play and open space for children and everyone. Keeping our kids safe and worrying about how well they will do in the future in our achievement-oriented society are large issues that I believe effects are re-action to “summer vacation”. My hope as a play advocate is that we can turn the wheel a bit and realize that life has much to offer outside of material success and achievement. Without stillness there is no dance. Playful experience leads to more creativity, deeper relationships, and better health. I hope we won’t say goodbye to “Summer Vacation” and instead explore solutions for how we can create more playful space and venues for all children, parents, grandparents, and families.

  • tarquin

    June 22nd, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    Without knowing it, since I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until after college, my mom gave me a big boost of functionality every day by having me walk a mile to and from school. The morning air was cool, flowers in neighbors yards lovely and the streets lined with mature trees tracking the seasons even in southern CA. Starting in the 8th grade I traveled to school by car or bus. Our school had no recess breaks and lunch was taken indoors. My classroom behavior spun out and my grades went erratic- everyone blamed it on puberty and my ‘attitude’ It took another decade to get medical confirmation that something in my brain functions differently. One of the first prescriptions I was given was to walk outside- short walks, long walks, improptu or scheduled walks, even trampoline walks.
    A walk in the am and a walk in the afternoon still is one of the most powerful tools I have to get myself in order. Deep nature is a treasure, but a nice neighborhood or park with flowers, light from the sky and the sound of leaves moving in the breeze is perfectly acceptable. Not to mention close enough to access a couple of times a day.

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