Q: Archbishop J, are holidays a help or a hindrance to children?
As a child I looked forward to holidays. It was a magical time that allowed for play, fun and roaming the neighbourhood with friends and family. The golden rule was “Don’t let the streetlights catch you outside.”
When I lived in St James, we had cousins around the corner, and bikes which allowed us to roam the area in awe. My sister read books all holidays; I played cricket, football, rode bikes and limed. You would not catch me near a book during the holidays.
Looking back now with adult eyes, I can see what the child could not see in those days. Both my sister and I have learning difficulties. We both have challenges with spelling. She overcame her reading challenge by reading excessively. For me each new term was a drama and a challenge to settle down and refocus.
This story has so many levels. On the most obvious level was the difference between the boy and the girl. One was ready to stay home and focus; the other, with wild abandon, roamed the village.
During primary and secondary school my sister did far better than me in schoolwork. When she took the then Common Entrance Exam she emerged among the top pupils of her year. When I wrote the same exam, I failed the first time and then got into Fatima the second time through the 20 per cent route.
The challenge of holidays
Years ago, I would have attributed this to innate differences between boy and girl and how each grows and develops. Reading Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers gave me a different understanding of our childhood differences.
In Outliers, Gladwell explores intriguing anomalies that offer new ways to interpret the world. In Chapter 9 he turns to the education of poor children.
He cites a study by Karl Alexander of John Hopkins University on children’s performance. The study tracked 650 first graders from Baltimore on maths and reading, using the California achievement test.
The test demonstrates that poor, middle and wealthy children begin with relatively similar scores in first grade. At the end of first grade the children are very similar. But, in second grade, the poor children slip backwards.
Alexander conducted tests at the end and beginning of the school year. What emerged was intriguing. Poor children lost several points during holidays, while the rich ones picked up several points. More importantly, poor children learnt more on average during the five years of school than rich children.
It is not that education is failing poor children; it is that the holiday experience across social class is very different, and this contributed significantly to the end of the year elementary school results, with poor children slipping backwards.
Over five years, the gap between the different classes was staggering. It was not that poor children were not bright or were less capable of learning. Or that schools were failing poorer children.
During the long vacation poor children hung out, watched TV, played video games, and got little mental stimulation. Rich children went to camp, played board games, read books, visited museums, and had structured conversations and thus learnt formally and informally.
So why do we have long holidays? Gladwell finds that in the 19th century when education in America became a focus, educators drew upon agriculture for an understanding of how the mind works.
Staple crops required time for the soil to regenerate. This led to the belief that long holidays, when the mind lies fallow, were vital for learning. In Asia, where they grow rice and renew crops as soon as one is finished, holiday time is shorter.
So, one of the reasons why my sister excelled, and I struggled through primary school was not due to our innate differences. It was structured holiday activity around reading a book a day versus a fallow mind that did no structured learning. At Advanced Levels she did much better than me; at university, I excelled.
The importance of holidays
If you take seriously the story of my sister and me and what Alexander’s research exposes, you will hear a call to action. I am sure there were other factors that led to the difference in our school success. But Gladwell’s insight reveals a major factor with a huge knock-on effect over five years.
If you are parent, grand-parent, or guardian of children in school, please take note. You have an obligation to create structured learning opportunities for your children.
If you can afford a camp, that is a great investment—multiple camps, even better. Check your parish, community or even local schools and see what is on offer.
My proposal: Ask your child to make a list of all the things he/she wants to do during the holidays. Have him/her do the research on possible camps, work out a budget, and have them manage the budget as part of the exercise.
Of course, make sure there are religious books on the list and stories of the saints. Ensure times of prayer are included each day.
A great resource is the National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS). The library has many great books on offer—both physical and eBooks. If your child is not registered with NALIS, make that an early activity. A proportion of reading time could then be scheduled for every hour of screen time—TV, social media, gaming.
By introducing disciplined reading to your child, as part of their day, you could jump-start their language skills, vocabulary, and overall English proficiency. NALIS also has camps, check the dates. These will not break your budget. If your child has a learning challenge let them use audiobooks or screen readers for eBooks. It is vital they have access to good literature.
Board games are also great fun for children of all ages, especially if several play together. You learn a lot about character during a board game.
On your list make sure you include community service: some parish, neighbourhood, or house activity that your child can do, in service to others.
Ask your St Vincent de Paul group about any elderly persons that need help with housework. Or ask the parish office if there is a small project that some young people can do together.
What about introducing some ole time games like marbles, jacks, spinning top, jockey in the canal etc. Whatever you do, make it fun, interesting to learn, and directed out to others as far as possible.
Holiday times are high risk for many children if they do not have structured learning activities.
Engage your child or grandchild and have him or her put together a plan for the holiday time. Ensure it contains the things they want, that you want, and that is well-balanced. Have them research opportunities at NALIS. Assist a poor family with a holiday structure.