Summer Learning

This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, July 2004

About a week after I wrote the last newsletter, I realized that what I had written was potentially open for misinterpretation. I had written that although we do not formally “do school” during the summer, that my sons keep themselves busy by pretty much doing the same things which we do during the school year. I just wanted to clarify this because I want to be clear that I favor children taking a long break from school work and am uncomfortable with the idea of year-round school (and I say this carefully because I realize that many people do this!) The point is that my children, out of their own interest, do things like write short stories or read science books, activities which, if they were taking place in November or March, would be called ‘school’!

I think that it is incredibly important for children to have extended time away from academics, from the usual routine, from head learning (even with Waldorf, where there is a balance between intellectual, artistic and active learning). Summertime, at least where I live now and in New York where I grew up, is such a wonderful time to be outside, to play all day, to laze around. I remember each year returning to school after a long summer spent playing under open fire hydrants and exploring Central Park (not to mention the annual family vacation to Atlantic City) and seeing how everybody had changed! New haircuts and sun tans, scrapes and bruises accrued during summer adventures were all interesting enough, but it was also so exciting to see how everyone had changed physically! Both boys and girls were taller and thinner or heavier, more muscular, with longer limbs… It was wonderful to start a new year afresh surrounded by all these changes. Somehow it helped underline for us that we were no longer the 3rd, 6th or 10th graders we had been way back in May.

Such experiences are common in any country, in any school where there is a long summer break (or perhaps winter break in some parts of the world). But having gone to a Waldorf school, I was witness to another element: instead of the dread ‘summer loss’, we children were actually further along than we had been in the spring!

I always shake my head sadly when I hear or read of parents or teachers bemoaning Summer Loss. Bookstores and curriculum catalogs are full of workbooks and ideas on how to combat this feared – and apparently widespread – phenomena. It just seems so odd to me that, having experienced the opposite as a student, teacher and parent, no one in the mainstream educational establishment ever seems to ask the question of why, if children are being taught in the right way, that they forget everything during their summer break?! Surely something is wrong with the teaching if it doesn’t stick!

It seems to me that the obvious answer to the Problem of Summer Loss has to do with methodology that is not based on child development, which does not recognize and understand the whole child, and which does not, therefore, resonate in the very soul of the child being taught. Herein lies the strength of Waldorf education. By teaching the whole child, by uniting the artistic with the scientific and by engaging the hearts, hands and heads of each child, the learning process is so much deeper, more meaningful and longer lasting(!) than by more haphazard ways of teaching children.

As homeschoolers working with Waldorf, we can really fine tune this approach to learning and further strengthen it by adjusting it to the individual needs and interests of each of our children. We can throw in a dash of unschooling and relax a bit, confident that our children will learn and that spending a whole week building a tree fort may be just as important as learning multiplication tables at this point in our child’s life. And, with insight and observation, we may also see that by allowing our children to explore their interests and become completely absorbed in their various projects, that other areas of learning are also enhanced.

This is an important point and can only be understood if one takes a holistic view of learning. If learning is seen as linear, and as a series of merely quantifiable goals then such a statement is nonsensical. If, however, one views learning as a vast interrelated process which may certainly have goals but is also larger than the mere sum of those goals, then one can see how time building a fort can effect how a child can learn her multiplication tables or some other such skill.

So, to return to the question of taking a long summer break, this is one of the reasons I ask each parent to consider such a proposition – to leave school work aside for a good long time. Many homeschoolers have year-round schedules, with a period of weeks ranging from, say, 7 to 10 on and then a week off, throughout the year. I can see the attraction of such a schedule, but I’m not convinced.

By having weeks and months which are largely unscheduled, then children are free to explore their own interests. And this might take time. One might have to grit one’s teeth through several weeks of “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do” before the child allows the muse to speak to him, whispering hints of projects to create in the yard or all over the kitchen table. Or, that child might suddenly learn to read, finding it in herself to dig down deep enough to make sense of what seemed incomprehensible. For another child, long periods of “nothing to do” might become time to daydream, to imagine, to watch the clouds and create his own inner pictures and poetry.

We tend to be afraid of ‘nothing to do’, afraid of ‘the void’. Much of this , of course, has to do with our instant gratification society and our culture of shopping to fill our emptiness. Wouldn’t it be great to teach our children that there is no void, that we are never empty and that there is always something to do? By allowing them to face down their desires to be entertained and kept busy, we help them learn to cultivate their own inner resources and the richness of their inner life. Having long summer breaks certainly isn’t the only way to help children with this, but it is one obvious opportunity which presents itself to most of us.

* * * * *

The above wasn’t written with the idea of urging parents to not do anything at all together with their children during the summer! Rather, it is to urge parents to 1) consider taking a long break from school work; 2) to not fill up all that time with too many field trips, camps, enrichment programs and the rest; and 3) to think about doing some different things together, things you might not normally do during the school year. Here are a few ideas.

  1. Try something different, some artistic expression which one hasn’t looked into before. Make papier mâché masks or puppet heads. Create costumes for the children or for the puppets and act out some of your favorite fairy tales or legends. A great (non-Waldorf) book to look into for inspiration is Adventures in Art: Arts and Crafts Experiences for 8-13 Year Olds by Susan Milord. It’s part of the Kids Can! Series, which generally I do not like at all, but this particular book has a lot of really great projects. Most public libraries carry it.
  2. Take long non-directed unequipped walks in nature. Leave the binoculars, wild flower guides, nets and microscopes at home and just use your senses. Watch the tidal pool with just your eyes; smell and feel the wet trees; watch the birds or discover the flowers and just forget about their names for now; lie on your backs in silence and watch the clouds float by.
  3. Similarly, take blindfolded walks through a wood or in a meadow. Those who are leading blindfolded partners have to be old enough to make this safe, but it can be a wonderful experience. Another variation is to blindfold several children and take each to a different tree. Ask each child to smell and touch her tree – to really get to know it. Then lead each child back again from the tree, spin each one around several times, remove blindfolds – and then each child has to find ‘her tree’.
  4. Read aloud some different kinds of books, ones which you might not normally read. Explore mysteries, Westerns, adventure stories, biographies as well as collections of poetry or tales from other lands…
  5. Do a family art project. Maybe get a really big stand-up loom and everyone take turns weaving on it. Or paint a mural on the side of your shed, garage or barn.
  6. Make that tree house, chicken coop, rabbit hutch or playhouse you never got around to.
  7. Find a local organic farm where you can pick berries or basil or tomatoes and learn how to make jam, pesto or tomato sauce.
  8. Volunteer at a local beach or river clean-up project or desert restoration project.

But again, most of all, let the children dream, doodle and explore their own projects. Hint – it’ll go easier if you are absorbed in your own work and not apparently availably to play with, entertain or read to!

Posted on July 3, 2005 in General Homeschooling

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