Students are gone from school just a week and a day for winter break at Takoma Park Elementary School in Montgomery County. But principal Zadia T. Gadsden knows that even that short time away will show when the children return for the new year.
"The main difference we've noticed is that students need to be refocused," Ms. Gadsden says. "They often have to be reminded of the rules and routines of the school. This causes a loss in instructional time." It is the children who are already struggling who suffer the most from this short break, she says.
Teachers at Ms. Gadsden's school prepare for this time of year by asking students to read 20 to 30 minutes a day to keep their minds active, and that often goes a long way. But summer vacation presents a much bigger challenge. The loss of skills that may occur during winter break is nothing compared to the loss of skills during the summer break, when Ms. Gadsden has seen students lose much of the reading progress they had worked so hard to achieve during the previous school year.
Ms. Gadsden's experience is borne out by a century's worth of studies that document the phenomenon of summer learning loss. Research shows that all children can lose an average of up to two months' worth of math skills as a result of this "summer slide." But low-income youths who lack access to meaningful summer learning opportunities can fall chronically behind their peers in reading.
Summer may seem far away during these cold days, but the parallels are obvious. Any parent or teacher can see how even the short holiday break from the structure, relationships and stimulation of school can make it hard for a child to get back on track once classes resume. Too much time is often spent in front of TV or video games, along with too much mindless snacking on sweet treats. While the sugar cookies might not be as omnipresent in summer, the problem of poor nutrition is actually much worse then. Children gain three times as much weight during summer as they do during the school year, and at the same time, many children who depend on federally subsidized meals during the school year do not have access to meals of similar quality during the summer.
All of this is not to say that families and children don't deserve holiday and summer breaks to relax and be together. They do. In fact, research also shows that the brain needs breaks in order to learn. There are simple things parents can do during these breaks to keep children from losing skills. Making sure kids make time to read in winter and summer is a great first step, as Ms. Gadsden's teachers advise. Cooking healthy meals together — and learning stealth math along the way — is another. A family outing to the local skating rink or bowling alley gets the body moving in winter, much as a hiking trip to a national park offers learning, physical activity and fun all at once in warmer weather.
For children whose families can't provide the supervision or the resources for these activities, winter break provides a temporary setback. But the summer slide can lead to enduring gaps in educational achievement. So let's use some of the precious time we have during this holiday season to reflect and challenge ourselves to provide an enriching, healthy, educational summer for every child, no matter what their circumstances may be.
Matthew Boulay is interim CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, which is based in Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.