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For Kids, Should Summer Really Be Down Time?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And now that it's May, parents are deep into summer plans for the kids. And if you live in some areas, you better have made them already, or good luck to you.

So, what's it going to be? Math camp or science camp or Chinese camp or how about something outdoorsy or it cross your fingers and pray that your childcare arrangements hold up through the summer and that the babysitter manages to get the kids to read five minutes a day.

What there probably will not be a lot of is hanging out by the pool or in the other kids' backyards. And today we want to ask, if that good or bad? These days parents and educators are debating whether summer vacation just lasts too long with too little structure or are kids not getting enough downtime? We wanted to explore both ideas so joining us today is Joan Almon, executive director of Alliance for Childhood. That's an organization that advocates for more creative learning for kids.

Also with us is Elena Silva, senior policy director of Education Sector. That's a think tank that focuses on education policies to improve student opportunities and she generally supports extending the school year.

Also with us, Dani Tucker, one of our regular contributors. She's a mother to a 17-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter.

And new to the moms segment, Connie Schultz. She's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. She's also the mother of four and she has a grandson, a three-year-old grandson. She also happens to married to U.S. Democratic senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Welcome to all of you. Thank you all so much for joining us.

JOAN ALMON: Thank you.

ELENA SILVA: Thank you.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.


MARTIN: Elena Silva, we're going to start with you because you're actually speaking at a forum this week on extended learning. What is that?

SILVA: Well, it's not a new idea that we should have more opportunities to learn. And the idea of extending the school year or the school day is not particularly new either. It is newly important, though. It's on the radar right now.

MARTIN: Because?

SILVA: Well, for a couple of reasons. For one, we have schools in districts and states that are facing much more accountability. They need to show that their kids are doing well. That they are closing achievement gaps, that there is real achievement progress over time. And at the same time we don't want to give up certain things. We don't want it to be just the basics. So we want to have arts and science and history, and at the same time also have rigorous academic achievement for our kids.

MARTIN: Well, part of it, isn't it that internationally, you know, most of our major international competitors have a longer school day now and that this model of having the summer off really comes from an agrarian society where kids were expected to work in the fields in the summer? And most kids don't do that anymore.

SILVA: Yeah, in part that's true, certainly. Yeah. I mean, the summer - the long summer break is a problem. There's plenty of research to show that these really long extended breaks are not great for kids that are low income and kids that don't have lots of learning opportunities outside of school. So that, in part, plays a big role in this. We want schools to do more and we want to make sure that schools are meeting the needs of all kids.

MARTIN: Joan, what about you? You say, forget that.

ALMON: Oh, I don't know if I'd go that far.


ALMON: But I would say, first of all, that I lived in Austria for a year and their school year was structured differently. They had six weeks in the summer, but they would have a couple weeks in the fall, you know, at least two weeks at Christmas time, holiday time, another two or three weeks in the spring. I'm not sure that the number of days...

MARTIN: If you add it all up, that it's longer.

ALMON: ...if you added it up is different. And certainly...

MARTIN: But they don't have that long three-month break where...

ALMON: No. It's structured differently. That's right.

MARTIN: By the time September rolls around, you know, parents are just ready to pull their hair out.

ALMON: Yeah, but the children find it delicious.


MARTIN: Well, tell us more about that. You actually think that kids perhaps need more down time. Tell us why.

ALMON: Yeah. I know. And it's commonly called down time, but actually I think it lifts children up. You know, it raises up their spirits. And I think unfortunately so many children are sort of downtrodden now by the pressure of school. I mean, the many things that you mentioned, Elena, can be helpful in one way, but too much of it is just adding enormous stress to children's lives.

MARTIN: And you think that more creativity...

ALMON: More creativity.

MARTIN: Why is that? What's your evidence?

ALMON: It's our human nature to be creative, right? And it's our human nature to play. We share that with animals too. And if you take play out of the lives of children, you're - there's a whole host of things that don't develop. They don't develop properly physically. They don't develop socially and emotionally. And they don't develop as well cognitively. In play, you're using every fiber of your being and integrating it together in complex ways. That's how children thrive. Right?

MARTIN: Okay. Dani? Dani, what about you? What do you think? Are you in the pro-play or extended day camp?

TUCKER: I'm in the pro-design for each individual child. I like what they have both said and I have used both of their systems for my kids. Imani, of course, she's a talented and gifted student, so I use the summer time for her to keep learning for the first half of the day and then the second half of the day, you know, they have activities that are different tag programs. And that helped her because Imani, when she would come to school in September, would be a little slow out the blocks and she's you know, a top student,. So I was like, okay, you know what, you're going to keep some sort of learning going during the summer so that when you do get to school you don't have to, you know, restart yourself, you're already ready.

Whereas, for DeVaughn, he needed a lot more activity because he wasn't giving me the books so, you know, he did take advantage of the basketball training over the summer and the football training and the leagues and everything. But at the same time, I would really focus him on doing those - learning that the school would ask him to do because, you know, the school has projects for them to do over the summer.

MARTIN: But, first of all, you're totally taking a dive here, because you told us - I don't know what's going on here but you said that before we started our conversation that you are in favor of extending the day in part because...

TUCKER: Oh, most definitely.

MARTIN: Well, why? Because you...

TUCKER: Oh, because my kids need it. All kids need it, I think because they - you don't want them to have a total down time on the brain. So if we extend the day I think they get that. I think they get that little extra push that they need.

SCHULTZ: Well now...

MARTIN: Connie, jump in here.

SCHULTZ: If I could, I'd like to weigh in first as a commencement address speaker and what I've been seeing in the last few years and a person who goes to a lot of colleges, these kids are worn out. And one of the ways I know it and I've come to say this at every address I give and every time I speak to college classes or high school classes, at some point I'll say, are - I'll just ask them, are you getting yourself any down time to think about what it all means that's happening in your life? Do you have any chance to reflect on your lives? And some of the kids will tear up. And this includes in big, you know, commencement addresses because I always can stand right in front of them, I'm looking right at the kids.

And to me that drives home a really important issue here. And, of course, because I'm a writer I am going to put an emphasis on the need for creativity. And the only way that comes about is when you have time to reflect on your life.

But I also understand the need for day-caring. I was a single mom for 11 years for the two children I raised myself, and so they were definitely in day camps. I was a big believer in hooky days, where I would take a vacation day to take them, and I coached softball - my daughter's softball team.

MARTIN: you don't have to like somebody to have her on the team. And if more women my age had had a chance to do that in the summers like I did, I think they would have come to the work environment with that lesson.

I think that playing is still learning. And I do think it's important for our children to know what it means to have fun because if you don't know what it's like to have fun as a child you're not going to - how are you going to learn it as an adult?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the moms. We're talking about the whole question of whether the summer vacation just lasts too long in this country. Do kids need to have more time learning? Or do they really need more time playing? Now with us are Joan Almon, Elena Silva, Connie Schultz and Dani Tucker. Dani, how do - how have you managed the summers all these years? You've been a single mom for a couple years now. How have you managed the summers?

TUCKER: I took advantage of the resources that were out there. I mean I saw many of them out there for us.

MARTIN: But do you do summer school? Do you do camps?

TUCKER: I did the summer programs, camps. And most of the ones that I did again, I emphasize, you know, I wanted the extended learning. I wanted them to make sure they had some learning involved as well as some outdoor activity and some playing. So it's just the point of the parent taking I took - make sure I took time to find what was out there for them and what they could take advantage of, and I found good programs in department of recreations and we took advantage of those programs. I found great programs in D.C., one reason why we came back to D.C. I wanted them to get the extended learning that we got growing up that I don't think they had.

MARTIN: Do you feel though that you had enough hangout time? If you had a choice, do you think, would you like them to have more hangout time or more structure?

TUCKER: Personally, I wouldn't, although they would.


TUCKER: And I say why I wouldn't want them to have more hangout time and is because the hangout time to me is not designed like ours was. In out hangout time there was still learning and there was still, as Joan was saying, activity. You know, they don't have, for example, on Saturdays you - I don't know - you had the 'Schoolhouse Rocks.' Okay, so even when you had your TV time you was watching 'Schoolhouse Rock!' and that was two TV things, okay. And then when you had to go outside you had these other activities that you did that didn't involve, you know, sitting in front of a video game but it involved doing some active and also learning at the same time. So that's what I wanted for them and that's what I was trying to get for them.

MARTIN: Joan, I've heard you say that you hear from a lot of CEOs that, or people in the business community, people in a position to hire people, that's one of the things you think that they are missing is people who can exhibit creativity and that a lot of kids today aren't presenting with that the ability to kind of think outside the box, which is something that you learn in the sandbox kind of. You go outside; you make up a game, like Dani was saying.

ALMON: Right.

MARTIN: You go out, you make something up and you figure it out. On the other hand, you know, we've reported on this study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, showing that kids are spending on average seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen. That's almost half the time they're awake. Now it could be, maybe it's a Kindle, maybe it's a Leapster, but probably it isn't. And so when you look at that you say well, okay, is this free time, wouldn't that time be better spent doing something more structured if that's what people are going to be doing with it?

ALMON: Yeah. I think children need help to get back in the world of play. Neighborhoods are completely different. There aren't moms at home with their ears opened to the play going around the neighborhood. You know, people don't feel safe letting the children out. All sorts of problems exist about play today - a lot of the fear.

So what they've done in England, for instance, we've studied quite a bit of what they do about play in England. They have adventure playgrounds and they have staff there and parents can sign a child in for the whole day and the staff knows how to be present and assist but also wear a cloak of invisibility so the children have that sense that I certainly had as a child, that you were in your own world of play with your friends. And then you're doing all sorts of creative activities and all sorts of social negotiation.

Because the other thing that we've heard from business people is they hire people, young people, fine young people, and they don't know how to work together. That the skills that you learn in the sandbox and organizing your own games - we played softball all the time in our neighborhood - you know, you just adjusted the rules to who was there and how you did it, you negotiated things, you'd get into little fusses but you didn't want the game to end so you worked it out.


MARTIN: But I think Elena might want to speak to that too. What I think we also hear from employers is that they're hiring too many kids who can't read and do math. And...

ALMON: Right. The colleges are saying the same thing, by the way.

MARTIN: Elena, go ahead.

SILVA: That's true. Absolutely true. I would echo what Connie said about it not being an either or.

ALMON: Mm-hmm.

SILVA: My question is just why we wouldn't want the school to play a role in bringing in that creativity?

ALMON: I'll tell you why.

SILVA: We want better schools. And so we want schools that offer the core basic academic in a deep way - this deeper learning. And we also want them to have enrichment activities in arts, in music, in play and all of these recreational activities that could all be integrated so that you're not cobbling something together over the summer or in your afternoons or on your weekends.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that Newt Gingrich says, you know, former Republican speaker of the House, has said that I've, you know, quoted before is: if we weren't already doing it, would we start? If we weren't already structuring the school year the way we do it, would we start? Would we really structure the school year this way?

SILVA: Right.

MARTIN: I mean isn't this really based on a notion that one parent at least is going to be at home and that there's going to be a lot of people around and that these big breaks are really based on a different economy than the one that we now have? So Joan, what would you do differently?

ALMON: I would certainly strive for a much balanced, more balanced life for children. And I'm not really opposed to what Elena is saying, I have to say. I think if you and I sat down we could probably design a pretty good program together.

SILVA: Probably.

ALMON: I don't think we're in such different camps. But I do think most children have a very imbalanced life. They either have far too little healthy stimulation or they have far too much healthy stimulation and it's a cause of stress for children. So balance that, you know, brings in cognitive learning but brings in creativity, brings in the arts, the physical movement.

I mean we are whole people. Our head doesn't just exist in a box. You know, the learning has to go all the way to our toes and there are good ways to educate children like that. But that isn't the trend in this country and that's what makes me fearful of extending the day, you know, tampering with the summers. If I could see that as a nation we were committed to balanced, holistic education, I would feel much freer to really redesign scheduling.

MARTIN: Okay. Where are you on water balloon fights? I just need to...

ALMON: Oh, yeah.


MARTIN: I just - a big water balloon fight.

ALMON: Frankly, in the summer. That's a great thing. I love mud play too.

MARTIN: Okay. I just wanted just ask. Okay.


MARTIN: Dani, what would you do - if you could design the whole thing over, what would you do differently?

TUCKER: Differently, I'd do what Joan said - I like that holistic in learning. I think we bring others together and come up with a system that is designed for that community. We have a tendency to stick to one plan and let that plan try to apply to everybody and I don't think that you can do that when you're educating our kids. I mean look at where I live, we need a plan, you know, and the lot of other plan that we have. So I'm inclined to agree with Joan. I think if we came together and designed a plan individually for the needs of the kids that we're serving that we could do this.

MARTIN: And when you say where you live, you're saying that a lot of kids without a lot of supervision.

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: Some kids with a lot of supervision and some kids with no supervision.

TUCKER: Right. Like in my area most of my kids don't have supervision and if they do it's from a teacher or it's from somebody outside of the family.

MARTIN: Okay. Elena, if we could wipe the slate clean, what would you do differently?

SILVA: Yeah. We would have schedules that don't have an enormous gap. We would be a lot more creative with our use of time, which also means we'd be more creative with the use of people so that, you know, we may have - we want highly qualified teachers in our classrooms. But that's no reason why you can't have community-based people and university students and all these other people, parents who offer quite a bit and could offer quite a bit to these students. You know, good education is going to require great people and enough time to deliver a great curriculum. And there is no way really, that we can design a system from scratch that's going to attend to all that that has these enormous gaps and serve all kids.

MARTIN: And finally, Elena, you're here at a conference on this very topic this week. I just wanted to ask you, how is this dialogue going? As Connie Schultz has mentioned, that it's many jurisdictions around the country that are facing tremendous budget pressure just to hold onto the resources what they have. What are you finding? Are you finding that there is interest in this idea that we're talking about or are we just still talking hypothetically?

SILVA: No. No. There continues to be a lot of momentum to extending the school day and extending the school year. Also to partnerships, the kind I spoke of. At the same time, we have states and districts crashing with budgets. And because of that there are places where you are actually seeing some folks pull back on these plans, increasing numbers of four-day school weeks even.

So I do think that I understand the fear about if we don't have a holistic approach we might not want to go there. But if we don't go there we're essentially making decisions about time based on how much money we have and we're just going to keep on moving it back and forth. That's not in the best interest of children and it's not in the best interest of their learning, and it's certainly not going to close achievement gaps that we have all said we want to close.

MARTIN: And Connie Schultz, final thought from you, if you could wipe the slate clean and start over what would you do?

SCHULTZ: In my perfect world, parental income would be irrelevant, everyone would get the same chance. I love Joan's model that I think you said came out of London. Is that right, Joan?


SCHULTZ: The idea that they get to play, there's some supervision but it's not overt, and I would want far more community involvement, parental involvement. But when parents aren't stepping up somebody else steps in the gap and then we just stand back and watch the magic unfold.

MARTIN: Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She's the mother of four and a grandmother of one. And she also happens to be married to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. He's a Democrat. Also with us, Elena Silva, she's a senior policy director at Education Sector. Joan Almon is executive director at Alliance for Childhood. And Dani Tucker, a mother of two teenagers, is one of our regular parenting group regulars. And they were all here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Connie Shultz was with us from WCPN in Cleveland. Ladies, moms, thank you all so much for joining us.

ALMON: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

SILVA: Thank you.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.