On seeking out in summer what should happen all year

Teacher writer Jessica Lahey wrote a lovely piece about unstructured play and the summer time:

Most schools across the nation have marked the end of another academic year, and it’s time for summer. Time for kids to bolt for the schoolhouse doors for two long months of play, to explore their neighborhoods and discover the mysteries, treasures, and dramas they have to offer. This childhood idyll will hold true for some children, but for many kids, the coming of summer signals little more than a seasonal shift from one set of scheduled, adult-supervised lessons and activities to another.

We always try to make sure there is plenty of time for unstructured play time in the summer, but I am easily reminded that for many children “two long months of play” or any play, really, is a luxury their schools or neighborhoods or lives don’t afford. The schools could and their lives and neighborhoods should but often don’t.

The piece also reminded me of how the school year for my own children morphs into summer. I was half planning a post on this for my own blog (good thing I have this guest posting gig to make me publish!) about the end of the school year for my children. In Virginia, high-stakes standardized testing (the SOL tests) start in 3rd grade, so much of the month of May, and April if you’re even more unlucky, can be spent either preparing for or stressing out about the tests or both, and then taking the tests. That’s when I start to long for post-testing time. Even prior to May, there is test prep, both direct and indirect.

The lament used to be that students don’t do anything at the end of the school year. In my children’s schools (so far only elementary–we’ll see if this changes when my boys go to middle), I have found it’s quite the opposite: they do tons, working up until the very last day. Once the tests are over, “real” learning and fun can resume. There are novels and cumulative projects and science experiments applying the content they have learned and field trips and social activities and an adequate amount of recess. This is when the teachers bust out some of the lessons and activities they don’t feel they can do or have time to do during the rest of the school year. Both teachers and students continue to work hard, but what they are doing is more meaningful and fun.

This is a beautiful thing to behold. But it also adds to my resentment of the whole testing regime. Why can’t the rest of the year be like this? Why do teachers and students have to suffer through rigid and low-quality standardized tests so they can get to the good stuff? Will the pendulum swing in the other direction while my kids are still in school or will the over-bearingness of The Tests continue until their K-12 careers are over?

Furthermore, and this is (finally) getting back to Jessica’s piece, it makes us seek out more meaningful learning experiences (versus unstructured play) for our children during the summer, like science camp, writing workshops, theater camp,and art camp. Because they don’t get enough of that at school. I remember after participating in a camp at the Math and Science Innovation Center in Richmond where he designed his own math video game, my son said, “This is just like school, only it’s fun!” That kind of broke my heart.

As my husband wrote after spending a day in our children’s elementary school, school has gotten better over the past twenty to thirty years; much progress has been made. But this one piece that drives so much else has been a step in the wrong direction.



  1. Rachel, as your piece suggests, there are arguments for both structured and unstructured play in summer. I think the main danger lies in disparaging unstructured play–treating it as frivolous, impractical, or even suspect. That is pervasive–and it’s due not only to testing, but to a preoccupation with resume-building.

    High school students tell me that it “looks bad” if they don’t have something specific lined up for the summer. A Yale professor tells me that his students now have their summers planned out several years in advance–with internships and so on.

    This is a big shame. On the other hand, structured play (or work, or study) can be greatly rewarding, in summer or any other time. (Some of my best summer memories are of music camp.)

    Also, the division between structured and unstructured play is not always clear; kids tend to structure their play pretty quickly. One reason I didn’t particularly like “unstructured play” with other kids was that they usually wanted to play house or baseball, and I wanted neither. I enjoyed other kinds of structured play: playing cello, reading, tinkering with an electronics kit, etc. So I spent a good amount of time alone. The time was unstructured insofar as I could choose what to do. Each activity was internally structured–up to a point–and also enclosed.

    Structured play (i.e., music camp, etc.) brought me in contact with kids with similar interests. That was very important.

    I realize I didn’t address the other big point of your piece–about the excessive time and energy devoted to test preparation.

    • Diana, Everything you say, even a quick comment on a blog, is so darn eloquent and thoughtful!

      Yes, people do denigrate unstructured play, I think because they don’t understand its significance–that’s one way Jessica does a great service, i.e., by explaining it.

      And yes, the boundaries are blurry: playing an instrument can be structured or unstructured depending on what you are doing.

      And some kids have a hard time with unstructured play in that they want a structure to be imposed, or they’re uncomfortable without structure. But I guess that’s part of the benefits for kids, learning how to cope and how to come up with a structure oneself without an adult imposing it.

      And then you’ve got me thinking about how introversion vs. extroversion factors in.

  2. “The Tests” exist for a reason. If all teachers and schools systems were excellent and honest, there would be no need for uniform tests. Parents would be sure that each student was learning as much as possible, and universities and employers would be sure that grades accurately reflect students’ accomplishments.

    However, since teachers and school systems vary in competence and honesty, some amount of uniform testing is necessary. The only issue, as I see it, is how much should there be. In the best systems, testing takes away from actual learning. In the worst ones, testing is the only reason there is any learning at all.

    • For the kids at the bottom and the kids at the top (of the national pool; individual schools/districts may have non-representative numbers of both), testing is essentially useless. The former will never be able to pass any meaningful academic test, regardless of resources applied, and the latter will pass the test but the actual extend of their knowledge will not be measured because the tests don’t discriminate at the upper end.

      • mo4, I agree with you in that I suspect most tests are designed as an assessment for kids in the +/- 1sd range, and therefore give an incomplete picture for those at the extremes.

        And then that got me to thinking about the old SRA tests that my generation took every (?) year. (I get the impression you’re a little older than I am, so I’m not sure if you had those or not.) I remember it consisted of a couple of days of testing – in the fall sometime, I believe – and then that was that. No test prep for weeks on end as I hear people describe current scenarios; just take the tests and do one’s best, and let the chips fall where they may. Then several weeks later, we’d get the results back, with our percentiles on the various subjects and so on. I would consistently score in the uppermost decile, at least for subjects that I enjoyed, like math, science, and reading.

        So now I’m wondering: How good a job did the SRA tests do at assessing students’ academic abilities across the spectrum? And whatever happened to the SRA tests? Did they morph into something else?

        • palisadesk says:

          SRA tests were one of several batteries of norm-referenced academic achievement tests. I remember taking them too, along with (at different times) Stanford Achievement Tests.

          Those and others are still around and still used in many schools . The Metropolitan Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, California Achievement Test and Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills are among the more widely used (the Stanford is up to SAT-10 or SAT-11 by now).

          The state tests are mostly criterion-based and “holistic” (performance-based) assessments which are a whole different animal, with different strengths and shortcomings. These have only taken off in the last 15 years or so.

          • I seem to remember reading that the ITBS tends to track with IQ, which wouldn’t be a huge surprise – and likely the others, as well. Is this accurate? If so, they might be avoided in some areas – in favor of state tests – since the ed establishment seems determined to pretend that IQ has no influence on academic achievement. Of course, good teaching and good curriculum are also influential, but still…

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        It is part of the catechism of American public education that, “every child can learn.” With the right teaching, every child can pass a “meaningful academic test.” Deny it, and you reduce your chances of being hired. You have shown that you have a negative attitude; you have given up before you have even started; etc.

        The fact that you are correct in your denial is irrelevant. American public education is about hope, often unreasonable hope. Because it sure sounds good. And it makes the paying customers (who are parents and voters, not students) feel good.

  3. I think I took the SRA test once and I know we took and IQ test once (in ES) and that its possible top score was 130. That’s the reason that academic magnet programs often use tests designed for much older kids. I know kids who took the SAT pretty early in 8th grade, as part of the process for HS magnet admission. I know one kid – accepted at both the math/sci and IB magnets – who scored in the mid 700s in both and one who went to the IB who had upper-mid 700s in verbal. Both said that similar scores were not uncommon among their classmates. I also know lots of kids who took the SAT for the Johns Hopkins program and lots who scored better than many entering college kids. Still in MCPS, the honors kids who took the HS exams in writing, reading, government etc and the MS algebra I and geometry (at the end of each course) had no prep and had high passes. A commenter on this site, who went to school in MCPS, once said that only the kids who could do that were actually going to be prepared for real college-level work after graduation. We now force everyone into the college-prep model; however able &/or interested they might be. Some kids of marginal ability might be able to make the cut, but are unwilling to put in the huge amounts of effort required – and we offer them no alternatives. There’s a lot of magical thinking and denial of reality involved.

    • We had the SRA stuff in the mid 70′s when I was in Middle School (grades 7/8) and we also had tracking and grouping students by ability, but that went out the window probably a few years after I graduated in 1981.

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