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Matthew Boulay

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The Brain As a Muscle: What We Should Really Do With Summer

Posted: 08/16/11 03:44 PM ET

Two recent articles illustrate the conflicting notions America has about summer and learning -- notions that, as a nation, are setting us back.

The first was a front-page story in the New York Times that described high-powered summer activities as a college admissions strategy for ambitious young people. "A dizzying array of summer programs have cropped up to feed the growing anxiety that summer must be used constructively," the article says. Most of the programs described are clearly costly. For those without the means to participate, the Times mentions one scholarship program that serves 10 lucky students.

The second article came from the writer Mitch Albom in PARADE magazine, who decried the pressure families and kids are feeling in summer to add to their school-year achievements. "We sat on curbs. We daydreamed," Albom writes, recalling his own youth and arguing that "I can make the case for doing nothing all summer."

Both of these articles speak clearly to one kind of student -- the kind with a choice about whether to spend the summer downshifting or ramping up. But what of the estimated 15.5 million children in poverty, many of whom likely can't sit on the curb and daydream in summer because it isn't safe where they live? Who can't get a summer job, much less plan a fancy summer experience that will look great on a college application, because public funding for summer jobs programs for youth has been slashed?

For some of these young people, there will be nothing relaxing about a summer without the only caring adults in their lives -- their teachers. And they will return to the classroom several months behind their peers who had the opportunity and the encouragement to keep learning during summer. Over time, research from the Johns Hopkins University shows, this trend is likely to markedly contribute to many of the same children dropping out of high school.

The saddest thing about both of these articles is what they say about our collective attitude toward learning. Who says that learning can't be relaxing, fun, enjoyable and equally available to all? The fact that summer looms so large for many kids and adults as an inalienable right to absolute time off communicates something sad about the way we view intellectual growth. It also obscures a much more productive middle ground for this season -- to provide a different kind of education, in a different setting, than the school year does.

In the world of fitness, this middle ground is called "active recovery." Just when you're ready to give up on a workout class, the instructor changes the weight, the muscle worked, or the pace so that the workout feels different -- like a break, almost. It feels really good, but you don't stop moving. That "active recovery" keeps the calories burning and the heart rate up so that when you return to the more demanding part of the workout, it's a seamless transition. And by the end of the class, you have accomplished more than you thought you could.

We should ask the same of our children. We spend so much attention and money on the question of whether public schools serve low-income, minority children as well as their higher-income peers, only to do them a great disservice by willfully ignoring summer, when many of these kids simply stop in their tracks and regress.

Let's treat the brain as a muscle and work together to make summer the season of active recovery for all of our children. Let's provide low-income children with the opportunities that families with means already have by providing these kids with great summer programs at low or no cost. Let's make sure these summer programs for the students who need them most are of the highest quality, which means that kids will grow, flourish and, most importantly, have fun -- perhaps not even aware that during this "break," they're continuing to learn.