Across the U.S., students and educators are beginning the traditional summer break — though “break” may be too generous a term for many educators who often work through the summers. But as temperatures rise across the country and many events and activities continue to reopen, you might wonder: Why does summer break exist?
Let’s explore the history of the summer break and see how it really came to be. Hint: It has less to do with farming than you might think.
Assuming a long break in schooling is a positive thing, allowing students and teachers to take a break, process, plan, and have fun, why is it during the hottest part of the year?
For many years, people have claimed that the traditional agrarian economy of pre-industrial societies led to the demand for a summer break. In this version of events, children were needed to assist in farming activities over the summer, often a crucial period in the northern hemisphere, as producers prepare for fall harvests and winter’s subsequent chilling of activity.
This is probably the origin you think of, if you ever think of the origins of summer break at all. It’s certainly what I had long presumed.
But that may not be the whole story.
So, if crops are planted in spring and harvested in the fall, why would a break in the summer be needed? Indeed, the agrarian idea of summer break begins to become questionable when you consider the realities of crop production.
According to PBS, summer isn’t even a good time to get help on the farm:
Kids in rural, agricultural areas were most needed in the spring, when most crops had to be planted, and in the fall, when crops were harvested and sold. Historically, many attended school in the summer when there was comparatively less need for them on the farm.PBS NewHour. “Agrarian roots? Think again. Debunking the myth of summer vacation’s origins”
The answer is likely more simple than farm schedules. In the days before air conditioning, summer was sweltering, and there was little relief. Cities in particular were boiling. Asphalt, glass, and metal all combine to make urban areas especially menacing during the summer. That made it an ideal time to take a break from steamy schoolhouses and all-day participation.
It turns out that it may have been the city, rather than the country, that made summer break a common practice.
Mental Floss points out that in the 19th century, when cities were growing and summer break beginning to become an established tradition, students weren’t even required to attend school. That means that when temperatures soared, many simply stayed home to avoid long, hot, and dusty days commuting and being active.
… as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.Mental Floss. “Why Do Students Get Summers Off?”
Making It Official
As the Industrial Age progressed, many changes to societal practices were becoming common, including worker protections and eight-hour workdays pushed for by progressive-era politicians and workers’ rights organizations, like unions.
Legislators eventually accepted the fact that many pupils simply wouldn’t show up during the hottest months, and began instituting official summer breaks. Urban schools codified this first, followed by rural schools, a complete turn from the normal assumptions about farm work.
This led business to begin promoting “summer vacation” activities and, over time, the summer break we think of was born.
While it’s a surprising origin, it perhaps speaks to something all educators, students, and guardians have often been reminded of during the trying recent months: Sometimes, you just need to take a break and cool off.