By Joan Firestone, Ph.D.
Spring has finally made it to my neighborhood. And while parents are busy getting out the tricycles and patio furniture, they are also contemplating the perennial question of what to do with the kids when the school year ends. It might well be that the best answer is to enroll them in a summer program. A century ago, even young children were needed at home to help with farm chores during the summer. But few of us still grow crops and we now know a long summer break at home isn’t best for children’s learning. Extensive research consistently finds it isn’t just that children don’t usually keep acquiring new information and skills when they’re not in school, they actually forget some of what they already know.
This research really isn’t surprising. We all tend to forget things we don’t practice and use regularly. It’s why our tennis game and our understanding of photosynthesis fade over time. And while we can certainly relearn both these things, the time it takes keeps us from moving forward more quickly. Young children are even more likely to experience a summer learning slide since many of the skills that they are learning haven’t yet become deeply embedded and automatic. This is true of academic skills, such as naming letters and counting, but is also the case for the softer, social skills that children are learning in their early years.
Learning to play nicely with others is one of the most important goals of preschool. And although some children seem to learn to do this naturally, many need ongoing opportunities to practice the sharing, interacting and cooperating, sometimes as leader and sometimes as follower, that are hallmarks of group play. These social skills, which are often learned with the same kind of teacher-guided practice as more academic skills, need to become consistent and automatic when children are young. By the time they are 7 or 8years old, it is much more difficult for them to learn social skills. So, summer programs become an important place to continue the social development of young children.
There is one more important reason to consider a summer program for young children. They, as well as many adults, generally function best with a consistent, predictable daily routine. When I visit my young grandchildren, for example, I make sure I don’t sit in their seats at the kitchen table or ask them to get dressed before breakfast when they are used to eating in their pajamas. They are happiest and feel most secure when things happen in the way they are used to. For many toddlers and preschoolers, it takes some time to establish a pattern of getting to school, comfortably separating from parents, participating in school routines and reconnecting with family at pickup time. Once this pattern is established, it is usually preferable to maintain it than change it for a few months before starting it up again in fall.
Both research and what we know of young children suggest that a summer program may well be the best option for your child. Look for one that combines familiar routines and learning with fun and expanded outdoor activities, now that warmer weather has arrived. But as important as this recommendation may be, don’t forget the special memories of summer you probably have from your own childhood. Summer provides a great opportunity to visit with family, explore new locations on vacation, enjoy extra time with a parent on a reduced work schedule or just kick back and relax. Be sure to take a little time to help your children create their own wonderful summer memories.