Parent Alert: Your child’s brain may actually shrink this summer

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Crew Member Jo Hard at Work“Are you counting down?”

Teachers hear this a lot this time of year.  For the record, I’m not.  I don’t.  Yes, I know the end of the school year is approaching.  I know my students are aware of this too.  There’s talk in the halls.  Kids are wearing shorts again.  Grass stains are starting to show up in the laundry.  It’s a force of nature.  Summer is coming.

As a public school teacher, honestly, I have a sort of love hate relationship with summer.  It has nothing really to do with any time off.  Contrary to popular myth, most public school teachers work through the summer, as do I, on teaching and learning, research, preparing, professional development and the like.  No, the problem I have with summer is the idea that, for some parents and kids, summer is a time to stop learning.

Hey.  I get it.  Summer break is tradition, and for many, it’s really just a shift from traditional classrooms to different learning opportunities such as summer school, camps, travel and the like.  That’s great.  The concern I have is that most people don’t understand that many kids’ brains will actually be shrinking this summer.  Really.  Many kids will come back to school in the fall with smaller brains than when they left.  I’m not speaking metaphorically, and I’m not making this up.  Though this phenomenon has nothing to do with the change in seasons—it is still a significant and critical time of brain development.  And for many, summer down time can have a lasting negative affect on long-term abilities.

Here’s the scoop: As our children reach adolescence, their developing brains begin their most radical and significant changes.  The cerebral cortex–the largest part of the human brain, associated with higher functions such as thinking and learning—begins to undergo a radical reorganization.

Up until this point, over the course of their childhood, the volume of gray matter in their cerebral cortex has been gradually increasing.  In fact, brain scans have shown that we never have more gray matter than we have at early adolescence.  As children enter and progress through puberty however, their brains actually begin to shrink.

Brain scientists call this process “pruning.”  It’s a time when unused neural connections are eliminated.  Scientists believe that this pruning process, while often disruptive, eventually allows our brains to operate more efficiently.

As alarming as it sounds, this is a natural part of the maturation process.  Still, it’s a critical moment in a child’s development because the connections that we exercise are the ones that we keep.  It’s the neural pathways we don’t stimulate that we eliminate.  At no point in our child’s lives is the old cliché, “Use it or lose it,” more apt.

That’s not to say that if we can’t play the guitar or speak German by the time we’re fifteen that all is lost.  Research has also shown the brain to be extraordinarily adaptable—regardless of our age.  It’s just that after a pathway has been pruned, it’s more difficult to build it back up again.

Which brings me back to my concern about summer.  Kids who stop using their brains in challenging ways over the summer—especially adolescent kids who’s brains are naturally pruning unused neural pathways—are setting themselves up for needless challenges down the road.  It’s important to remember, we prune what we don’t use.

So as summer approaches this year, especially if you have adolescent children, begin planning to continue to engage them in meaningful learning experiences.  Travel, explore, experiment, build and create.  Share and compare books and media.  Tell stories around the campfire.  Use and engage your children’s interests this summer.  Keep learning.  You’ll be creating more than great memories—you’ll be building stronger brains.

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Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at:

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