In an increasingly competitive world, many parents push their kids to do schoolwork during the summer. While a recent study suggests that this is beneficial — even vital — opinion among education experts remains sharply divided.

For example, Greta Pennell, associate professor of education at the University of Indianapolis, says that children learn through many different activities, and "all book-learning all the time" is not always the best way to go. "Kids need playtime and downtime," she says. "While it's important for them not to lose ground over the summer, they shouldn't be drilled and killed either. Anything academic needs to be moderated with true free time that can include enrichment and fun things that kids normally wouldn't do in school."

Pennell advocates less structured learning over the summer months. "There's a lot of pressure now that everything has to be about academics and book-learning, but a lot of what kids learn is hands on," she says. "And, kids will probably remember more learning experientially rather than just reading it in a book."

Pennell recommends parents look for activities that can include a "teaching moment" — a time where they can teach the child something new or spark conversation. She suggests:
  • Visiting a state park. In addition to outdoor activities, state parks are great places to learn about history and science.
  • Taking swimming lessons. While it may not seem academically oriented, children will learn through the programs and they are still getting instruction, so when they get back in school, they are still in the mindset of having to listen and follow directions.
  • Attending festivals and fairs. Summers abound with music and cultural festivals and county fairs, all of which are great opportunities for kids to explore many topics.
  • Shopping at a farmers market. The market provides a new, stimulating environment. Curious children may ask where things come from, and sellers are often happy to answer questions about their goods.
Pennell says the main thing is to let kids have time to be kids. "Allow kids some space so they can find out what really interests them," she explains. "Give them unstructured times where they have to plan what they are going to do — it takes a lot of thinking skills to plan a day." She also encourages parents to be actively involved with their children. "When you make time to do something with your children, follow through with it," she says. "And don't multitask when spending time with your kids — that will really go a long way."

Compare Pennell's advice to a recent study by Johns Hopkins sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle and Linda Steffel Olson, which blames summer vacations in part for the fact that low-income children lag behind their more privileged classmates in high school graduation rates and college attendance.

In "Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap," published in the April 2007 issue of the American Sociological Review (ASR) they contend that there is a summer learning gap between lower- and higher-income children that begins during elementary school. Higher-income children's home environments are resource rich. They are more likely to have access to magazines and books, and to have their parents read to them.

Consequently, an education gap accumulates over the years and results in unequal placements in college preparatory tracks once the children get to high school. The gap also increases the chances that children from low socio-economic families will drop out of high school and decreases their chances of attending a four-year college.

The researchers studied 790 Baltimore Public School children from the 1st grade through age 22. They used testing data to track learning patterns, school records and student reports to identify students' high school curriculum placement, and student interview data to determine high school completion and college attendance.

These findings are significant because once disadvantaged children get to high school, their achievement test scores are far below those of higher-income children. Achievement test scores, of course, play an important role in academic placement.

"What we are able to do is trace back in time the disparities between the two groups of children, and to a very substantial degree, we trace the difference back to summer learning differences over the elementary school years," says Karl Alexander, the study's lead author.

Alexander believes that programs aimed at narrowing the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students should begin in elementary school or even earlier. To be most effective, such programs should provide year-round attention to disadvantaged children to offset the out-of-school conditions that hold them back.

"What it boils down to is that we need to stop these children from falling behind. We have to help them have experiences over the summer months that build academic skills, such as high quality summer school programs or year-round schooling. In a nutshell, disadvantaged children depend more on school-like experiences in acquiring academic skills in order to succeed, whereas higher-income children can and do acquire these skills at home."

What, then, are parents to do? One reading of these seemingly contradictory expert opinions is that high-income parents should ease up on their kids' academics, while lower-income parents should push them harder. Or not.