Research spanning decades suggests that too much R&R impedes learning. Children of all ages score lower on the same standardized reading, spelling, and mathematics tests in September than they do at the end of the previous school year. The dropoff is most dramatic in math: On average students lose two months' worth of skills in the subject, a fact that may help explain why U.S. students rank 25th among 30 developed countries in math literacy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"If we want our kids to compete in the global marketplace, we must find ways to foster their academic growth during the summer," says Ron Fairchild, president and CEO of the Smarter Learning Group, a consulting firm that works to improve the quality of education.
One potential fix, touted by President Obama, is to expand the number of days in the school year from the current 180 to 197 (the average for countries with the top student achievement levels, including Japan, South Korea, and Germany), a move that would add a month of class time and thus curtail the lazy days of summer. However, with cash-strapped schools already cutting programs right and left, most districts don't have the funds to cover the increased salaries and other costs associated with adding school days. Plus, the notion of abandoning the ingrained tradition of summer vacation -- a time for families to bond and relax together -- is hardly a popular initiative among parents or kids.
Nor should it be, say some experts. "Summer is a time for kids to explore and experience new things," says Phalen. He recommends enrichment programs (camps, library events, parks and recreation activities) as the optimal way to help kids hone skills, stay active, and keep their mind engaged. But not every community offers these, and both the cost and the logistics -- how can working parents transport their kids to and from such opportunities? -- keeps many kids at home. Only one out of four participates in a summer learning activity, according to a 2010 report by the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance.