Making Summer Vacation Worthwhile

Here's Nico with the newt he caught one day at a creek.  He learned a tremendous amount that day about newts and the ecosystem that surrounds them.

Here’s Nico with the newt he caught one day at a creek. He learned a tremendous amount that day about newts and the ecosystem that surrounds them.

Our neighbor Tommy (5) didn’t come to our house to play with my boys yesterday afternoon because he was doing homework for his summer camp.

Oh, brother…

If you think childhood is all about school, then of course, you think summer vacation is a waste. Why spend three months goofing off? You might as well attend a “summer camp” that simulates school.

On the other hand, I’m a big believer in summer vacation. I happen to believe that it can, and should, have value for children that is distinct from the value of school.

So, my wife and I have tried to structure summer for our three boys so that they can make many great accomplishments that aren’t possible during the school year. In the meantime, they’re having a fabulous time. Can you say “Win-Win?”

Marco (9) and his middle brother Nico (5-1/2) began their summer at Tinkering School, building some very cool, useful structures out of wood. They and I also rode our bikes in San Francisco to get to Tinkering School, which was both thrilling and very educational for them. What better way to learn about a city than to ride a bike through it?

In the second week, they and their youngest brother, Leo (4), attended my neighborhood summer camp, Camp Yale, where they learned neighborhood geography with Huntopoly and wooden signmaking using my Shopbot.

Since those first two weeks, they’ve spent most of their time at home playing, but this hasn’t been wasted time by any means. They’ve built some amazing Lego structures. They’ve invented some complex games, and built physical environments as sets for those games. One game is situated in a huge pile of wood chips that has tunnels, and includes a pen, a small notebook, play money, and lots of small figurines, stuffed animals, and cars.

Leo’s learned to ride a bike without training wheels. Nico’s about to land a front flip on our trampoline any day now – he’s been working up to that for some time.

Socially, two neighbor boys have become permanent fixtures at our house every afternoon, and this has helped our boys learn valuable lessons about friendship and cooperation. Almost every day, it seems, they fight and make up, and yet every day, their relationships grow tighter.

One afternoon at a nearby creek, they boys became totally obsessed hunting for newts. They each caught one, and after holding theirs for a few minutes, they released them back to the creek. Having contemplated taking their newts home and giving them a sustainable habitat, they thought very deeply about the lives of newts and the ecosystem that sustains them.

A few weeks ago, our family took a short trip to Wyoming national parks – Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Our boys experienced geysers and hot springs first hand, so that now, Nico and Leo have built “Nile Geyser” in our sandbox. While there, they and I got the thrill of a lifetime when we met Jim Lovell, the commander of the famous Apollo 13 spacecraft that was portrayed in the film of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. Since then, they’ve all been devouring books and magazines about Apollo 13, and they’ve rewatched the movie as well.

Last week, Marco attended another camp based on the Lego Mindstorms robotics platform, but I think he got as much out of his bike ride home from there every day as he did from the camp itself. Rather than pick him up every day, I instructed him to ride to a different location every day to have lunch with me. So, he learned about riding his bike in the small town traffic of downtown Palo Alto, CA, and he learned how to plan his routes to the different restaurants I chose. After lunch, I sent him home, once again on his own. At first blush, most parents might think that I was being neglectful of Marco. However, how many working parents get to sit with their kids midday and have a quality time everyday as I did? In the meantime, he learned a lot biking on his own to meet me.

Now, Marco’s on a cruise in the British Isles with his grandparents. A few days ago, they visited Winston Churchill’s underground government headquarters in Westminster, London. Marco was captivated! In a few days, they’ll visit the Titanic Belfast Museum in Belfast, Ireland, where the Titanic disaster that Marco’s read so much about will come to life for him.

Their final stop on the cruise will be to the beaches of Normandy. In preparation for this, Marco has read two books on DDay and watched two movies: The Longest Day and the DDay segment from the documentary series The World at War. So, he’s super excited about that stop. I get chills up my spine thinking about him and his grandparents approaching the Normandy shore on a cruise ship. I’m sure it’ll be a moment he’ll remember the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, at home, Nico and Leo will deepen their play at home. Even though their oldest brother is away, they refuse to attend any summer camps. Leo is constructing wooden models, and Nico has been concentrating on drawing. Tomorrow, they’ll start playing with an Erector Set I just bought them. I’m sure they’ll end up making things neither I nor the toy’s creators could have imagined.

Outside, Leo is becoming an expert bike rider, and Nico is working on his forward flips. Soon, I bet he starts trying a back flip.

I write all of this not to brag, but to give my own personal account of what kids can accomplish in the summer if they’re taken out of a school-like institutional environment. Honestly, I’d be very hard-pressed to pick out a 2-1/2 month stretch during the school year in which my boys accomplished as much as they have this summer.

They simply could not have had these experiences if they were in school, or if they were in pseudo summer school at academic camps every day. And, I believe that the experiences I mention here are highly educational, as important as anything they could do in a classroom.

What about your kids? What have they accomplished this summer outside of school? Has it been worthwhile for them?

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