Rethinking children’s right to leisure during school holidays

Published: 7 September 2023

School holidays are opportunities for children and young people to engage in leisure, including essential rest, relaxation and enriching non-academic activities.

By Stephanie Chambers, Susie Smillie, and Nicholas Watson

Leisure and health are human rights that apply to both children and adults. These rights are connected. Leisure can enhance health through physical activity or contribute to emotional and mental wellbeing through enjoyment and fun. Participation in some leisure activities may be dependent on health status. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  sets out that governments should encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity (Article 31).

The devolved UK governments have approached this in different ways, however, all focus on the importance of play. The Welsh Government acknowledges the potential of play in reducing leisure inequalities. Although a Play Strategy for England was developed, its implementation was hindered through the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent cuts to government spending, highlighting the precarious position of children’s right to leisure. In recent years, there has been substantial investment across the UK in providing free-to-access holiday activities, including the Holiday Food and Activities Programme in England and post-COVID investment from the Scottish Government.

History of school holidays

There is a widespread belief that school calendars were aligned with the need for additional pairs of hands during harvest rather than to provide leisure opportunities. It is more likely however that community-specific needs determined the structure of the school year in the past. School holidays are opportunities for children and young people to engage in leisure, including essential rest, relaxation and enriching non-academic activities. School summer holidays in England, Scotland and Wales are around six weeks in length and eight weeks in Northern Ireland.

The right to leisure for children and young people during this time has been recognised for more than 100 years. In 1902, Mary Tanner advocated for children living in difficult urban conditions in London to be afforded the same opportunities for leisure and enrichment as rural dwelling children. She emphasized the importance of granting children freedom and play opportunities, advocating for the use of the vast London parks as important civic assets through which this could be achieved.

Children joining hands together

How do school holidays impact on educational achievement and health?

Concerns have been raised about the impact of long summer holidays on children’s educational achievements. Previous research suggested that inequalities in educational outcomes could, in part, be attributed to the summer break, with advocates pushing for a move to year-round teaching, with much shorter holidays in between. More recent research questions the evidence base and suggests that all children are likely to score lower on tests after summer. Concerns have also been raised about the impact of school holidays on children’s health and wellbeing. In the UK, concern has focused on hunger, lack of physical activity and poor mental health.

Rethinking school holidays

Educational and public health concerns around school holidays are valid, but there is a danger that by focusing only on potential long-term impacts, school holidays are identified as risky periods fraught with potential dangers. Instead, there are multiple issues that need to be considered about school holidays in children’s present including the potential for fun, enjoyment and participation. A greater focus on the social structures and social interactions that children and young people experience during these times is required. Some key areas where further understanding is needed include:

  • Understanding the variety of leisure experiences during school holidays, including structured, unstructured and family activities, without value judgements as to which is the preferred, or most potentially health enhancing.
  • Understanding the range of inequalities in leisure experiences including those due to socioeconomic, ability and ethnic differences.
  • Understanding children and young people’s experiences of attending holiday programmes. There are also opportunities for children and young people to be involved in co-designing their provision as active citizens. In addition, programme staff can provide perspectives on their experiences of working with children and young people in these environments, and parents can reflect on their families’ experiences of being supported through programmes.
  • Evaluating the impact of holiday programmes with a wide range of outcomes considered including reducing inequalities, social connectedness and participation.

It is crucial to engage with children and young people themselves so we can better understand this important period in their lives.

Funding: This work was supported by the Medical Research Council under Grant MC_UU_00022/1; the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government Health Directorates under Grant SPHSU16; and by a University of Glasgow College of Social Sciences studentship.

First published: 7 September 2023

<< 2023