The Not-so-lazy Days Of Summer

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - June 06, 2007
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My son, like kids everywhere, is rejoicing at the arrival of summer. In his mind he sees endless days filled with sloth, snacks and snoozing, Gameboy marathons punctuated by romps at the beach. Ah, summer, time of mind-mushing, TV-watching, do-what-I-like liberty. Free at last!

Uh uh, buddy. Not so fast. First of all, summer ain’t what it use to be. Most public schools in Hawaii now are on a schedule that abbreviates the summer vacation by about a third. That’s a good thing. The old bulky system just didn’t make sense. On the traditional schedule of three months off, summer school and programs like Kamaaina Kids filled part of the gap, if you could afford them. But for a lot of folks that final, endless month of August was always a headache for families struggling with child-care issues - and that’s just about every family I know.

Where did the September through June schedule come from? I know we used to believe the old story about kids on the family farm helping to “bring in the harvest” all summer long, but on closer inspection that simply isn’t true. Here’s what says about it:

Historians at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum that recreates an 1830’s New England farming village, say not. According to the website and schoolmistress there, farm children went to school from December to March and from mid-May to August. Adults and children alike helped with planting and harvesting in the spring and fall.

Children in urban areas in the 1800s actually had an 11-month school year. The reason? Immigrant parents needed a safe and affordable environment for their kids to stay and learn English while they worked in shops, factories and mills. Not so different from the dilemma working parents cope with today, is it?

Historian Kenneth Gold, author of School’s In. The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools, wrote that summer vacation, as we know it, was an invention of the mid-19th century belief that “too much schooling impaired a child’s and a teacher’s health.” But the reality is we know children can adjust to a lot more schooling than we give them in this country. American kids have fewer school days and shorter school hours than their student counterparts in Asia, Europe and South America. They typically spend weeks relearning stuff they forgot during the summer. Why stick with a system that’s inefficient, outdated and unproductive? If it were a business it would go belly up.

I suspect a lot of parents here are mighty pleased that things are finally changing. There is a caveat, however, and it is a serious one. Historically, one of the reasons people were desperate to take a break and get away during the summer was because it was simply too darn hot. In New York before air conditioning, the heat inside city classrooms was oppressively unbearable. Here in our tropical island state we have temperatures in the high 80s and even in the 90s in many of our classrooms, and air conditioning is still, for the most part, unavailable. I’m all for energy conservation, but if we ask our kids to go to school during the hottest time of the year, we need to make them comfortable.

As for my summer-loving son, he attends a school that still adheres to the traditional schedule. That’s three long, long months off the educational grid. Every year we send him to summer school and he complains about it. But the reality is he would be bored silly otherwise. And while I am a firm believer in the restorative powers of R and R and think kids benefit from some unstructured time off, that has to balance out with the needs of a changing world.

Summer days may be lazy, hazy and crazy, as the song goes, but too much of a good thing is simply that - too much.

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