Play and Learn in Tandem: The Unexpected Benefits of Allowing Your Kids to Enjoy Their Summer Vacations

The other classroom of childhood

Play and Learn in Tandem: The Unexpected Benefits of Allowing Your Kids to Enjoy Their Summer Vacations
(Robert Collins/Unsplash)

Summertime—the dream of every school-age child, and to be honest, even some adults still to this day. It is often a time of fond memories, fun, vacations, warm weather, and relaxation. As children, it was a time when we were finally able to, in our minds, “take a break” after a long year of learning.

After a year full of tests, projects, homework, schoolwork (this list could go on and on), we came to think of it as a time we could finally relax, refresh, and have a well-deserved rest from the rigors of education. The days were longer, and as children, we spent them with our neighborhood friends going from one adventure to another.

Our parents never really worried what we were up to, and many days, my mom saw me for lunch with the instruction that I be back home for dinner. The days were carefree and, for many of us, epitomized all that was good with childhood. Family vacations were the norm for many of us, and for me, they always included a trip to the beach.

Yet what I (and I am sure others) failed to realize at the time was that some of the most important learning of our young lives was occurring in those three short months each year. Think back on your childhood days: When did some of your sweetest memories occur—were they inside the classroom, or during those months of “vacation” each summer? Most likely you have sweet memories from both, but for me, at least, many of those most cherished times occurred during the summer months, when I did not even realize what I was learning.

In recent years, we have begun to hear terms like “Summer Learning Loss,” “Summer Setback,” or “Summer Slide”; each used to express a concern in student learning progress. In a society obsessed with testing scores and student achievement, summer break to some seems obsolete and unnecessary, as people try to cram ever more “classroom” learning into what some considered “wasted” summer learning time. If we look at it this way, though, we forget some of the very necessary learning that does and can occur outside of the classroom during these warm summer months.

I remember sitting in my office with parents several years ago and being asked repeatedly, “When do our children have time just to be kids?” The longer I sat in that principal’s chair, the more I came to realize just how important that question, and our answer as a society, really was—“When do our children just get to be kids?”

In that question was also the answer. “Just to be kids”—when did being a kid mean that learning was not occurring? For some reason, there is this idea that learning can only take place in a formal, “school” type setting—that for children to learn, they must be in the classroom—but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. As I looked back on my childhood, so many times the most important lessons I learned had nothing to do with the classroom, but rather with the daily experiences of my early life—experiences that many times took place outside of the schoolhouse.

The classroom of summer for us was the classroom of adventure, experiences, and any number of activities. The reality was that we were learning, not even realizing that we were learning. During the summer, we had time for activities and experiences that the busyness of the school year did not afford. As I have grown, I have realized that the learning of those months, in many ways, was more necessary and needed than the book report or homework assignment that I had done months before.

For me and others, many of those summertime experiences like vacations, play, and fun taught us lessons that have helped sustain and guide us throughout our lives, lessons like:

1. Family is important, and time with them is fleeting and will never come again, so make the most of it. 2. Friendships and relationships are the things that will sustain you even when other things are gone. Building those is just as important as building your mind. 3. Fun and play is not just fun and play. It is our early lessons in learning to enjoy life and find the “fun” in each day. Play also helps us build relationships, learn to work with others, and function in a more realistic social activity than the formal classroom at times provides. 4. Nature and creation are beautiful, and it is important to spend time enjoying them. They are also full of wonder and discovery—think of the wonderful, hands-on, discovery science lessons you learned just exploring nature in the woods, on the beach, and everywhere you went. 5. Imagination, as we grow and play, is what will allow us to dream and hope, even when our eyes cannot see it. Developing and exploring our imagination gave us the tools to hope and dream as adults. 6. Cause and effect (natural consequences) are keys for adult success. Some of my greatest learning came through the games and activities of summer and doing something and seeing the result. How many days I would “rig something up” and then simply watch and see what happened. 7. Slowing down and resting is important. We cannot always go at a breakneck speed. Sometimes, we just need to stop, rest, and enjoy life.

There are certainly many, many more lessons and experiences that we could cite, and for each of us, these lessons were different and helped shape us into the adults we have become. For you, what are some lessons you learned outside the classroom just “being a kid”? What fond memories of summer do you have, and how have they shaped you as an adult?

Sam Cooke once sang, “Summertime, and the living is easy…” The question as parents that we must ask ourselves must be, “Is this statement still true for us, and is it true for my children and family?” As a child, this was the time of year we lived for. School was out, the weather was nice, and it was, for many of us, the most glorious three-month vacation one could ask for. No papers, no tests, no homework, and most importantly, no school! Yet even without all of those things, for most of us, learning still took place, and some of the sweetest memories and most valuable learning experiences happened during those few short months.

As parents, and educators, we need to ensure that our students and children have the opportunity for these same developmentally crucial experiences. When we do, we will find that “education and learning” have not really stopped occurring during the summer, but instead, another just as valuable learning experience is taking place. As parents, we need to celebrate summertime, just as we did as children, and be sure that we are a conduit for this different type of learning for our children, so that one day, they too may look back on these days of fond memories as some of the most impactful learning experiences of their young lives.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.