The Case for an Unstructured Summer
The Case for an Unstructured Summer

Recently, a tweet from Phyllis Fagel has resonated across the Internet. In it, Fagel argues that instead of worrying about “catching up” this summer, kids should play!

Maybe that idea doesn’t sound too controversial, but even before COVID-19 and the world’s sudden obsession with “learning loss,” people have argued that the traditional school calendar, with its long summer break, is outdated. After all, they say, it’s not the way the real world operates.

And they’re right. Other than teachers, most people work all year, taking only a couple weeks of vacation here and there.

But here’s what they’re forgetting: Kids are not just miniature adults. They are growing and developing and need lots of space and time to process who they are and what they want to become. And they need unstructured summer time to help them discover that.

School is much more comprehensive than it used to be.

So elementary school principal Jeannie Tynecki tells us. “During the school year,” she says, “students must persevere through tasks, push their thinking, and problem solve in all subject areas.” It’s true, even during this pandemic year. In fact, according to a WeAreTeachers national survey, most educators estimate they covered at least 70% of their curriculum this year. Combined with all the shifts and changes to their learning environments, and the overwhelming mental toll, kids need a break.

Kids need ownership over their time.

During the school year, it seems like kids are told what to do and how to do it every minute of the day. They need a break from this treadmill of other-directedness. They need the opportunity to make decisions about what they want to do. Without unstructured time, imaginations flounder. Kids need to figure out what’s important to them and have time to follow their curiosity. They need time to play, because after all, play IS learning.

And time to loosen up.

Understandably, the days of kids knocking around all day at home are not the norm for most. Many kids with working parents spend part, if not all, of their summer break in camps or some sort of daycare situation. Hopefully, the summer programs in which they’re enrolled are loosely structured (with no homework or grades to worry about) and offer lots of choices and plenty of free time for open-ended play.

Kids need time with their families.

Summer’s longer hours also afford plenty of opportunities for families to connect in a meaningful way, even if family members are away from each other for most of the day. Simple activities, like rehashing the day’s events over Popsicles on the front porch, making dinner together, or reading a book together help nurture solid relationships. Thirty-year teaching veteran Kristin Groth advocates spending time together in nature. “Kids need experiences that stimulate all of their senses, and getting outside is the best way to do that.” Take a little hike around the neighborhood, dig in the garden, or lie on a blanket and look up at the stars.

Summer break sets kids up to return to school refreshed and refueled.

When kids come to school after a well-deserved break, they feel excited to see each other and tell one another about their adventures. The fresh start that a new school year provides is invigorating. Having time away from structure and instruction sets kids up for growth. “An unstructured summer vacation is a highlight for our children,” says Tynecki. “Providing unstructured exploration time with family and friends is essential for the academic and social-emotional development of our children.”

Do you see unstructured summer time as essential? Come share on our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

And kids aren’t the only ones that love summer! Check out our Fabulous Big Summer Bucket List for Teachers.



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