Where did March break come from?

A quick look back at the origins of the spring break in Canada

By Chris Muise

As students, teachers, and families begin to prepare for March break, you might wonder, where did March break come from? What was its original purpose? Does it still serve that purpose?

To find out, we spoke with Dr. Robert Berard, a professor and director of graduate education at Mount St. Vincent University. Berard’s focus is the history, philosophy, and politics of education. He spoke with us about where March break came from, and what it is today.

What is the origin of March break in Canada? What was it originally supposed to accomplish?

Prior to the 1930s, schools often had breaks in the year, usually related to the local economy. Even in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, schools would close in New Brunswick during the potato harvest. Same with P.E.I. Often, schools would close, or there would be a widespread acceptance of absenteeism, in southwest Nova Scotia when lobster season [started]. In some areas, there was a practice of closing schools during the influenza season, and it was rough to estimate when that was until it was almost upon you. 

But the contemporary March break, as far as I can tell, seems to have been a kind of hand-me-down from colleges and universities that began having a break in the midway point between the beginning of the second term and exams. The idea of giving students a chance to catch up on their work and prep for exams emerged in the ‘30s.

It really became a cultural phenomenon when, according to many articles, U.S. colleges and universities started holding swim meets in Florida. 

It sounds like it’s a mix of agricultural, economic, health, and cultural factors.

All those things played a part, but they tended to be localized.

Does March break still serve all these functions we’ve discussed?

It certainly doesn’t serve the agricultural one anymore. March is neither particularly the time for sowing or reaping. That’s pretty much gone by the boards. And the health one, vaccination has taken care of that. 

The idea of giving the teachers… and students a break is still generally considered a good idea. But more than anything else, the travel industry would have a fit if they cancelled March break. It’s a rich time for them. 

In addition to parental-organized trips and activities, the school trip to London, or Paris, or Italy, and so on… there are whole companies that make their money during March break. But it no longer has any connection, I don’t think, to whatever purpose it had originally.

Educationally-speaking, is there still any value in having a March break?

Much depends on what the kids and their families do with the break. Parents can plan their own kinds of activities. There are a whole number of local institutions that organize March Break camps. Mount St. Vincent here, our athletics department runs a whole number of March Break camps.

So, there are lots of opportunities during March break for alternative education?

There are lots of learning opportunities for kids. There are certainly a lot of families… that do things with their kids, which is good and educative in itself.

Extrapolating from actual research done on the break over the summer, when there are kids who are not doing much of anything, the educational benefit is minimal. But I would say most kids, whose parents take an active interest in them and find something for them to do, actually do benefit. Almost all the camps are educational. Kids meet other kids from different places. There’s a lot of stimulation for them. I don’t think it holds them back. 

Articles written about learning loss in the summer tend to focus on memory learning (i.e. you learn certain steps in a particular order). Math and science were the two areas where kids seemed to have the biggest regression. As I read the articles, they got me thinking, “Maybe they didn’t really know them in the first place.” The students just knew them well enough to do the exam, by committing them to memory, and then they kind of forgot them over the summer, as opposed to fully integrating them into their thinking.

There must be something of a psychological benefit to having the occasional break?

I think that’s absolutely true. Certainly, with a well-planned break for your children, they will not lose that much of their learning, and they’ll pick up a whole lot of other things they can then bring back to their class in the following year.

Is March still the right time for the break? Or would it be better to move it?

I’m not sure there is a better time, particularly in Canada. It has the advantage of coming about halfway between the beginning of the second term and final exams. There’s a rationale for that. And it’s become so entrenched in our practices and planning, it would be disruptive to change it, And, it would produce no great benefit.

Any other thoughts on this topic?

Every time we think about school, we shouldn’t make it equivalent to education. Kids get an education all the time. And school doesn’t work for every kid; it only works for most kids. But kids will learn things in all kinds of places. Only a fraction of what you learn is learned in school.