I’m often asked what school work a child should do over the summer holiday, as parents can be concerned that the momentum of learning can be lost over the 5 or 6 week break. My answer generally depends on one key factor. Exams – but not in the way you may think. If a student is in a non-exam school year and is simply keen to achieve and get prepared for the next year, my answer is ‘students really need to take a break from school work’. If however, a student is about to enter an exam year, or time of increased workload/effort, my answer changes to ‘students absolutely must take a break from school work’.
Why do I believe school breaks should be just that – a break? Partly because our physical and mental health needs timeout from work, and partly because there are rich experiences to be had by travelling or seeing new places, but mainly because we should be raising future generations to be people who seek a work life balance – which is revealing itself to be a key component overlooked by many in the current adult workforce.
The new ‘norm’ in the workplace (despite being promised that technology would give us more leisure time) is longer days, working lunches, sending a few emails in the evening, food on the go and ‘don’t forget to be contactable on weekends’ through your smartphone. The benefits of home working, connecting technology and mobile communication have also brought the danger of 24/7 work mode and the inability to say ‘no’. In 2017, over half a million UK workers suffered from work-related stress, anxiety or depression, costing over 12 million lost working days. It would be too simplistic to associate all of that with overworking, yet the same report highlighted that 44% of the cause is due to excessive work.
Working constantly negatively affects our brain, metabolism, heart and sleep patterns, which in turn can raise the risk of obesity and associated health problems. A recent Harvard study revealed that for people working more than 55 hours a week, there is a 13% increased risk of heart attack and 33% increased risk of stroke. Ironically excessive work also negatively affects the brain’s ability to learn – so overworked students don’t learn well. The brain of a young person is certainly being worked hard in term time, as they balance a busy timetable bouncing daily between English, History, Maths, Science and Art, or is it Geography, Technology, Spanish, Music and ICT? Then the brain is also processing all the emotional and social learning associated with human interaction, and that’s before we add any homework or revision for tests and exams. School learning is intense and heavily loads the mind, and we should all be concerned for the mental health of children. It is estimated that one in five children between the ages of 13-18 years will suffer from mental illness, and for adults diagnosed already with mental illness, more than half began before the age of 14. As adults and parents, we should be seeking ways to teach a key principle (which is sometimes learned too late by many adults) – there is a time to work, and a time to play.
Remember that proverb… ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. Mmm maybe Jack is not just dull, but today he’s stressed out, inefficient, drinking heavily, on medication, unhealthy or suffering chronic fatigue.
I recently took part in a school ‘outdoor adventure’ camp, where mobile phones were banned, fun and challenging activities (both on land and water) were plentiful, and responsibilities (like cooking and washing up) were applied. Not only was it incredible fun, but students came alive in ways often unseen in the classroom. As the sun went down students were in groups talking, throwing a ball back and forth, playing cards or learning to throw a frisbee. It was refreshing and in all honesty, healthy.
Yes there is a time for work, there is a time for homework, there is a time for dedication and commitment and grit. Yet when there is time for a break, surely we need teach young people how to rest well and make the most of a downtime opportunity to explore a wider world. Go for more walks, take up a hobby, meet up with friends, listen to music, take a picnic or even read! Radical.
So if your child has been given school work over the summer, encourage them to either do it straight away (if it needs them to refer to past lessons) or preferably in the few days leading up to the new term starting, which will get the brain back into routine and warmed up to take on new information again. But for goodness sake, let them have a few clear weeks away from school work and the associated pressure.
“We work to live, not live to work”. Isn’t that what we say, even if we don’t live it as much as we should as adults? Enjoy your summer.