Sunday, 8 June 2014

Seasonality and education: why summer holidays should be sacred to our children's development

It's been a while since my last posting - it's been the season of summer term exams and we have worked beyond our normal hours to cater for our students needs: we're alway happy to try and accommodate last minute panickers to ease their worries and provide some useful input but it has been a joy to see our regular pupils take the exams in their stride. Just like running a farm, you can't cram a harvest!

Indeed, like farming, our learning often goes through cycles. Moreover, it is because of farming that our learning is somewhat conditioned to go through cycles: we have a long summer holiday off from schools precisely because that was when the children of farming families were needed to work on the farm and prepare for the summer harvests. But as we have moved into a post-industrial age, the summer vacation has become a routine for all families with children to enjoy.

Not surprisingly, there are moves afoot to abandon the long holiday - and while the original reason for giving children a summer has gone, it would be inappropriate and unhealthy to take away one of childhood's last bastions of freedom.

A discussion between anthropology, psychology, and sociology may elicit a theory that we don't just shape the world around us but that the institutions we create similarly shape us. It's certainly true in my life as my work follows the school terms - I feel the surge to research and write more in  the autumn and winter months when the academic terms recommence and the need to shut down my academic side in July and August. Children and families with school aged children follow the same rhythm, and while we can always alter the institutional frameworks and abandon the long summer holiday as a redundant vestige of the agricultural age, there are deeper reasons for not tying our children to institutional learning all year around.

The summer break can give children of all ages a magical time free of responsibilities and adult-led demands on their minds and personalities. For thirty six weeks - with intermittent tastes of freedom, children are jostled into institutionalised learning or what we call schooling. For many no doubt this is appropriate as these days both parents are economically obliged (by the state induced inflated costs of living) to work, and most people do see schooling as a necessary element to education: but during their time at school pupils are in turn conditioned to follow the rhythms of the school - proceeding from one class to another, one subject to another, learning the skills or knowledge that the somebody else far away (i.e. the committee members defining school curricula in state schools) believes that all children should learn. Sounds rather contrived when put like that ... and of course it is.

Summer holidays give children the time to be themselves and to pursue their own interests, hobbies, and sports - and it is amazing what many get up to in the holidays that then may become an essential passion in their lives: working with parents, gardening, reading for pleasure, going to outdoor concerts, exploring the coast or hills, playing sports all day in the local parks, building with construction kits, visiting museums, or just hanging out with friends and relaxing. It is a time when children turn to educate themselves.

I make a distinction between schooling and education. Schools impart knowledge through some form or other; education comes from the student - educere (Latin) means to lead out rather than to put in. Education revolves around our self-education, which can only truly take place when we are free to learn, free to discover and explore.

Education best takes place when you leave the children to run around on the beach discovering rock pools; schooling takes place when you ask them to write a report on what they did. For adults, our education is continuous and open-ended: I want to learn more about something, so I look it up, research it, and where appropriate, apply it to my life. That's education. If I need to prove I have completed a course in something for some reason or other, then I have to return to being schooled.

In a world (well, our culture in the UK) in which accountability and paper audits have become an integral part of schooling, it's not surprising that children's free time - the open-ended freedom of exploration and self-directed learning - is considered somehow suspect or dangerous. That children should be seen and reported on, tested and invigilated at all levels is the hidden premise of much of our present schooling - so young children are given homework: not to improve their particular minds and weaknesses, say, but just to keep them busy. Otherwise, they may run off and do their own thing, heaven forbid.

The same minds that encourage homework for all ages demand the incorporation of younger and younger children into institutions (childcare centres, pre-school)...and we must pause and ask why? But that's for another blog.

The other important reason for maintaining the long school breaks - apart from the magic of true education it can bring - is the health benefits of being outdoors. Solar medicine, as I call it, keeps away diseases of many forms according to researchers. In the northern climes, we suffer from a lack of sunlight during the late autumnal and winter months, so we particularly need spring and summer to recharge our vitamin D and to fill the lungs with fresh air and exercise!

I read a lot of research on health and nutrition but I'm not going to stray into the area of whether x and y supplements are good for your health or whether children should be wearing x factor sunscreen (no pun intended on becoming famous); but evolutionary biology and anthropology certainly indicate that our ancestors lived most of their days outdoors, using their muscles and exerting themselves regularly. It is said that the typical hunter-gatherer walks around 20 miles a day. We evolved outdoors and we need to get outside as much as possible. Despite modern civilisation's tendency to keep us indoors (work, gym, entertainment, travel), our bodies still need to get out there.

So on health and pedagogical grounds, let's defend those long summers!

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