Before starting this post, I did a little Google search on ‘children’s learning through the summer’. I was surprised to find just so many posts focused on children’s learning loss over the summer – commonly known as the summer slide – or how to continue children’s studies and sneak in yet more academic style learning… What I didn’t encounter were posts about children’s natural learning when they’re given a proper chance to take a true break from school.
Although in term time, our approach to home education is structured and intense, we’ve always balanced this off by factoring in long school holidays, where in essence we become unschoolers, following the lead of the child.
This summer for example, the Beans have had 10 weeks of school holidays from mid-June to end of August. It’s interesting to note that other countries, such as Estonia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea, Poland and Sweden, all of whom came in the top part of the latest PISA rankings – a method for comparing 15-year-old academic performance between countries – also have much longer summer holidays, from 9-11 weeks in length.
So clearly there’s something in this need for a long break, allowing children’s brains a chance to assimilate their academic learning from the previous year and learn from the world around them. We saw this first-hand after being shocked by how much our own children had developed academically after 12 weeks travelling back in 2019, during which they did next to no academic work.
So, what does this extended break offer children and how is it important for their learning? Having analysed what the Beans chose to do over their ten-week break (which, looking at Facebook, seems very similar to the activities of their friends), below are some of the lessons I’ve learned about opportunities the holiday presents.
So, without further ado, the long summer break offers children the chance to:
1. Follow Their Passions
I’m a big believer in supporting your children in following their dreams and passions (see this post). The summer break offers the time, space and opportunity for them to pursue and strengthen these interests further, whatever they may be. Through this, they not only improve skills in their chosen focus, but also develop tenacity, perseverance and patience, as well as an understanding of what it’s like to fail and bounce back up again.
Following passions accounted for the majority of our summer. For us, it’s all about cricket for Bean10 and acting for Bean12 (can’t believe she’s 12 already!). This year, there were so many opportunities for them both that it quite derailed many of our existing plans for the holidays.
Bean10 played a variety of U10, U11, U12 and U13 club and district cricket games throughout June and July; the highlight of which for him was captaining the U10 district side to victories. He spent ages carefully setting out his field for each bowler, but it obviously did the trick! This was all combined with hours and hours of practice in the nets and on the field perfecting his bowling and batting technique, and two weeks of cricket camp where he spent whole days in his happy space, doing what he loves best with friends who share his passion. Could there be a better way to spend a summer?
Bean12’s acting also took off this summer, with some incredibly special moments. Highlights for her included:
- Reaching the final ten of the national 2021 Poetry By Heart competition, the prize for which was the chance to perform on the stage of the Globe Theatre in London! Given her love of Shakespeare, this was like a dream come true. She gave an incredibly moving recitation of The Charge of the Light Brigade, powerfully projecting her voice to the hundreds watching her in the wooden O, and above the noise of the planes overhead. She had many adults come up to her afterwards to congratulate her on her poignant performance.
- Gaining a distinction in her Level 2 Shakespeare LAMDA exam (equivalent to a GCSE), in which she performed two five-minute long monologues – one as Juliet and the other as Prospero in the Tempest – and answering questions on the literary techniques used, the meanings of the pieces and the roles of the characters throughout the plays.
- Doing a day’s worth of extra work in an upcoming film. Although she had no lines, she loved this experience of working on a film set.
- Auditioning and reaching the final three for a commercial. The auditions themselves were a great experience and the casting director gave her fantastic feedback on her improvisation technique. But I believe the final rejection was probably just as important a part of the learning process, building her resilience for what is a tough industry.
- Being a member of the Youth Voice team at the Marlowe Kit in Canterbury, helping them develop and then playing a key role in Open Days at the site, promoting to potential investors the proposed multi-million-pound major redevelopment of the space.
- Preparing and filming two new and contrasting clips for her Spotlight profile – one a gritty, sad piece requiring a northern accent (finally something I could help her with!) and one as young and sweet Sara Crewe from The Little Princess (one of my favourite books).
- Continuing to act in and direct/co-ordinate a group of homeschool friends to put on the play Dodger by Terry Pratchett.
To be honest, it’s not surprising we didn’t get much else done over the summer!
2. Develop New Skills with No Time Pressure
As well as perfecting existing skills for activities they already love, the long unstructured days provide opportunity for trying out new skills, taking all the time they need. Boredom is key here. Leaving them plenty of space free and without plans, so they must work out for themselves what they want to do, works wonders.
I spend a lot of time in the summer researching and planning the academic parts of their upcoming school year. Sometimes I feel guilty as this keeps us quite home based as their friends are out on exciting day trips. But then I’ll notice that Bean10 has spent all day learning a new guitar piece and practising his comic book drawing, or I hear them both giggling as they watch and complete their online Film Making course together (we booked the course from Film School 4 Teens and if you click the link through Jamie’s Simple Homeschool site, you get a 15% discount).
And then I stop feeling guilty and remember why leaving time for them just to be is so very important.
Learning how to mentally rest and unwind is a skill not to be sniffed at. There are many adults I know – myself included – who struggle to know their limits and take appropriate time to rest and recover. Learning to do this in a healthy way at a young age can prevent mental health issues in the future. For my Beans over the summer, rest meant
- playing with their Sylvanians/Lego/teddies;
- setting up intricate imaginative games both inside and out;
- listening to and playing music;
- playing games (Crystal Maze has been the board game of the summer!);
- doing any type of sport;
- watching the odd movie or episode of Top Gear!
- reading, reading and more reading.
Snuggling up with a good book and a hot chocolate is the ultimate in relaxation for them both. Bean12 for example read the following 36 books over the holidays (* for those books classified as 12+), all of which she’d recommend:
- Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiance by Veronica Roth *
- Itch, Itch Rocks and Itch Craft by Simon Mayo
- Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant
- The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon *
- The Train to Impossible Places by P.G. Bell
- Skellig by David Almond
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness *
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith *
- The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson
- When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle
- The Secret of Nightingale Wood, Castle by the Sea and The Ghost of Gosswater by Lucy Strange
- Pax by Sara Pennypacker
- The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens
- The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgewick *
- Every Day by David Levithan *
- A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan
- The Peculiar Peggs of Riddling Woods by Samuel Haplin
- The Highland Falcon Thief, Kidnap on the California Comet and Murder on the Safari Star by M. G. Leonard
- The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery
- Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray
- The Other Side of Truth by Beverly Naidoo
- Time Riders by Alex Scarrow *
- Kat Wolfe Investigates by Lauren St. John
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead *
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor *
- Chinese Cinderella & the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah (second book in the series)
- The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke
Being properly rested allows children to start the new school year with a renewed zest and excitement for learning.
4. Be Outdoors and Learn About Their Natural Environment
There are many advantages of being outside for both your physical and mental health. It relieves stress, improves immunity, sharpens your focus, calms the mind, increases memory as well as a whole host of other benefits. Summer gives children time to play barefoot on the beach, climb trees, make campfires, find fossils, adventure up mountains, roll down hills, camp under the stars and marvel at flowers and insects they find in their gardens. In fact, I’m sure if you’re asked to think of a mental picture of your own childhood summer, the image would be from somewhere outside.
But looking outside of ourselves for a moment, there is an urgency to protect our beautiful natural world before we lose it for good. People are more likely to protect what they understand, and yet a study completed by Cambridge researchers showed that children over 8 were substantially better at identifying Pokemon characters than organisms such as oak trees and badgers… So clearly teaching children to identify their native species of flora and fauna has never been more important, and summer is the perfect time to do this.
Although I’d planned to do a lot more on this front than we managed, we did achieve the following:
- A monthly bee walk. After initial training in bumblebee identification with The Bee Conservation Trust (all for free), along with a free supply of nets, pots, magnifying glasses and ID guides, we were joined by one of the Bee Conservation Trust team to conduct the bee walks. This involves walking a set transect of land, identifying each bumblebee species, its sex and behaviour (i.e., was it in flight, nest building or foraging and if so, on what plant species) and then recording the data in the master database. This feeds into a national project to understand the distribution of bee species and thus better target the conservation effort for these declining populations of important native species.
- Wildlife surveys at the Knepp Estate. Knepp is a renowned UK rewilding project in which the 3,500-hectare estate is being returned to a pre-human habitat by almost abandoning human intervention in its management, allowing the landscape to return to its natural state. Deer, wild horses, long-horn cattle and pigs roam across this fence-free site mimicking the herbivores which used to exist in large numbers across the UK, such as wild boar and the extinct auroch, and controlling the vegetation to produce a patchwork of different habitats. The effect on wildlife has been outstanding, with large increases in biodiversity and growth in abundance of threatened species such as the nightingale.
Luckily for the Beans, their grandad’s company, Operation Wallacea, ran trips to the Knepp over the summer for sixth form and university students to finally get the opportunity to do some field surveys. They very kindly allowed the Beans and me to join in some of their fieldwork, including large mammal surveys, bat walks (they loved using the bat detectors to identify the different species), watching for badgers at dusk, bird watching, butterfly and bee surveys and finally grass species identification, which is much more exciting than it sounds. They genuinely loved learning the different species. It was an amazing part of our summer and they learned so much in the process. Probably one for a separate post, but to give you a flavour, here are some photos from the Estate courtesy of one of the scientists, Jack Hague.
Note that if you’re interested, Knepp offers camping, glamping or a variety of wildlife safaris.
5. Spend Time with Family and Friends
We’re a social animal, born to interact and communicate with others, whether this be in a large gathering, extrovert-type of way or on a one-to-one, introvert-type of way. Either way, it’s key. The long summer break offers plenty of opportunity to meet, connect and play with both local and far-flung friends and family, practising and enjoying communication skills essential for life.
Try watching how they learn from interactions with both younger and older extended family members. There’s often a lot to be gained from seemingly simple exchanges.
For us this summer, it’s been a joy to see how they look after and protect their little cousins, making up complex and imaginative fairy stories, lasting all day and involving much searching for evidence of supernatural activity! And at the other end of the age spectrum, communications with grandparents are extremely fruitful, as each one offers a different perspective and the benefit of a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and wisdom.
6. Be Inspired
The holidays are the perfect time to scatter through some experiential inspiration for your little learners, be this through books, day trips, theatre visits or sporting events. Here’s what energized us this summer:
- The Olympics! Who wouldn’t be enthused by the outstanding performances of the Olympians this year? The Beans were fascinated by all the new sporting events they’d not seen much of before, like the mountain biking, BMX, diving, modern pentathlon and speed climbing. I love also that it inspired Bean10 and his friend to set up their own mini-Olympics in the garden! They had a full day of events in cricket (obviously!), running, cycling, football, hockey, swimming and table tennis. He slept well that night! His interest in cycling also meant he enthusiastically joined me for the first half of my cycle around the perimeter of the Isle of Wight, managing an impressive 32 miles up and down many hills!
- Theatre trips – especially watching the RSC perform As You Like It at the Globe, which brought home to Bean12 the importance of projection in this famous theatre.
- Visit to Osborne House in the Isle of Wight, home of Queen Victoria, particularly pertinent after our in-depth Victorians study last year. Bean10 was transfixed by the mini museum built to house the royal children’s collections of natural history specimens, fossils, antiquities and pieces from around the world. He looked at every single item on display and set up a similar exhibition on returning home!
- A trip to Slimbridge Wetland Centre, with its wide variety of educational talks and activities.
- Watching The Hundred live at Lords! Such a great atmosphere. Oh, and Bean12 had fun with Bean 10’s Godfather extrapolating a statistical sample of the result of each delivery compared to the score at the end of each set of five balls, whilst also discussing the limitations of the sampling technique! Love a bit of applied maths!
After a fun-packed ten weeks of holiday rich with learning experiences, I could tell the Beans, although clearly sad to leave the summer behind, were ready and excited about the upcoming term. Ready for a different style of learning. And four days in, it’s going well so far!
Hope you all had a blessed summer too! x