Hilary French: School holidays are crucial for health and happiness

The annual debate over the six-week school summer holiday break being too long has reared its head again

Children enjoying the school holidays at Cullercoats
Children enjoying the school holidays at Cullercoats

Many parents find the prospect of children at home for weeks on end over the summer holidays daunting.

As well as the practical challenges of juggling work and home and managing the needs of different siblings, I find that parents are often worrying about how to fill the time and keep everyone entertained.

Is the solution shorter summer holidays? Education Secretary Michael Gove recently declared that “the traditional long summer school holiday is a relic of the 19th century and should be consigned to history”.

His reasoning is that longer school days and shorter holidays are required to keep up with the rigorous academic standards of children in the Far East. I want to challenge this thinking. I believe that we underestimate the importance of time outside of formal schooling in the development of a young person at our peril.

Holidays are as important as term time, but in a different way – as long as they are used properly.

So why is a long stretch of non-school time important?

Academic capabilities are only one dimension, albeit a very important one, of the development needs of children. They are the visible and measurable tip of the iceberg.

Children also need to develop what are grouped together as “soft” or “non-cognitive” skills. These can be compared to the non-visible, submerged base of the iceberg: social and emotional skills, creative and imaginative capabilities; problem solving abilities, as well as self-confidence and a strong sense of self and who they are.

These are the other strong foundations that schools and parents need to help children develop for themselves. They are less measurable and the processes to acquiring them less structured and ordered, but we should not underestimate their importance. Employers don’t.

Holidays are also a time when children can discover new interests and find hidden talents. Finding a passion could be one of the most important keys to a happy and fulfilled adult life.

We work hard on developing these “soft” attributes at school but the summer holidays provide an opportunity for longer stretches of unstructured time without the usual demands of the school day and homework – a valuable counter balance to the intensity and prescriptiveness of school routine.

Longer stretches of “empty” unstructured time provide the opportunity to play; self-directed activities; time to socialize with friends and neighbours, and, very important, time to mess around outside, ideally close to nature.

Learning to use and enjoy unstructured time is a skill in itself which many people – both children and adults – find increasingly difficult as attention spans get shorter with so many sources of ready made entertainment which require minimum effort or input.

By comparison, creating your own amusement may sound quite hard work, and even rather an old fashioned idea: cooking, making a bead necklace, constructing and painting a model, making a video and editing it, creating a game, making a costume, reading a book, or learning something new all require effort, persistence and patience.

It is tempting to give in and let your children default to the TV, Facebook, computer games or Twitter, but please don’t – there is time for everything.

By now, some of you will be thinking “the theory’s all very well, but try putting it into practice”.

So, what should families do in the summer holidays?

First, we need to dispel the myth (or expectation) that a successful summer school holiday should be 100% fun, full of excitement, entertainment and basking in the sun and 0% chores, tasks and helping out – it is a summer break not all holiday.

Get a good holiday routine going; this is helpful for everyone. Mornings may be projects and afternoons free time for friends, sport and leisure. Even if there is “nothing happening” it helps to divide the day up with something to look forward to later in the day, to give it a sense of purpose.

This holiday routine also includes you as a parent or relative. Think of something that you can do together with your children when you get home that is different from term time. This could be anything from playing sport, having a ping pong championship, to cooking supper together; the list can be drawn up by you and your children together. People should also establish a few important parameters: getting up by a certain time, alloting jobs in the home for different members of the family, only having so many hours watching the TV and on computers.

They should also not be tempted to fill up every day with activities; make sure there are periods of un structured time. A degree of boredom is healthy. However, this doesn’t mean lounging in bed until lunchtime, or lying on the couch watching TV or playing computer games all day.

You may need the courage of your convictions to weather the reactions when children hit the boredom barrier. Don’t convince yourself that busy children on endless courses equals success, while children moping around saying “I’m bored” is failure.

Everyone in the family should agree on a personal challenge for the holidays – this could be anything from doing a diary/scrapbook, learning something new or reading a book every week.

Families should also make sure you sit down to at least one meal together each day (and not in front of the TV).

The essence of my message is intentionally simple and “back to basics”. It does not require spending a lot of money but it requires parents or relatives to get involved and join in, and in particular to have the courage of your convictions about what is important.

In conclusion, I would definitely vote to maintain a statutory minimum of a six week summer holiday for schools, with one important caveat: that this holiday time is used properly.

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