Balancing Act

Finding creative solutions to summer 'brain drain' dilemma

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Summer brain drain

Summer brain drain (Cavan Images / July 12, 2013)

Chicago Public School kids — including mine — are released for summer on Friday, which means I have two days to start panicking about summer brain drain.

Or not. I can't decide.

On the one hand, research indicates it's a real thing, with Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper finding that kids across the board lose math skills, and poor children lose both reading and spelling skills during the three months they're not in school.

"We need to dispense with romanticized notions associated with the traditional summer break, look at what's really going on and consider the consequences," Cooper writes. "Lots of kids get bored over summer."

On the other hand, a little boredom never hurt anyone.

"The idea that kids need to spend the summer doing academic-style learning is so misguided that it's potentially destructive," says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a B Minus" (Scribner). "There's so much learning to be had through, as Richard Louv, the author of 'Last Child in the Woods' says, play that uses all five senses in the three-dimensional world."

The National Summer Learning Association has declared June 20 Summer Learning Day, whose aim is to "send young people back to school ready to learn." I've received no fewer than six emails in the last two weeks touting programs and tips aimed at combating summer brain drain. My 8-year-old daughter brought home fliers for two different summer tutors promoted by her school.

My instinct is to toss it all aside and protect summer as a sacred, academics-free space. Math will happen when my kids help me count the change at Dairy Queen. Spelling will happen when they read aloud every godforsaken billboard we pass during road trips. And of course they'll read and be read to.

Which isn't meant to discount the validity of Cooper's research, particularly the evidence that a three-month break from school widens the achievement gap between poor and middle-class kids. That should concern us all, since a well-educated populace benefits everyone. Every child's achievement should be every grown-up's priority.

But I think some of the pressure to turn summer into another semester, in effect, is more of an appeal to the parental instinct to turn your child, and your child alone, into some sort of super-achieving superpower who gets super accepted into all eight Ivy League schools. A lofty and defensible goal, but not one that I happen to have.

"There is a panic among some middle- and upper-class parents over losing even a moment in the race to the top," Mogel says. "It has gotten so overwhelming that it's permeated every bit of downtime, playtime and, now, summertime."

Better, she says, to use the summer months to send your kids outside more and let them problem-solve their way out of boredom.

"That's how you build so many of the actual 21st century skills we want them to have," she says. "As opposed to the paranoid guessing about what they'll need more — Mandarin or foraging."

And to combat brain drain, maybe we commit to finding a child or a group of children who could use a grown-up to read to them for an hour a week. Maybe we find a children's literacy program that could use our help. Maybe we drop off a bag of books and art supplies at the local women and children's shelter.

Along the way teaching our kids a lesson in humanity, which is difficult to quantify but beautiful to achieve.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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