I had to groan when I saw there's a big new push on for what's called "expanded learning time" — longer hours in school. But give kids a break. They need summer.

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Around the time 40 education groups were making the case that summer vacation is bad, my kids were learning something I never knew. You can eat stinging nettles. And it doesn’t hurt (much).

Nettles are those prickly plants we called burn weed when I was growing up in the Midwest. I never imagined that if you fold the hairy leaves just so into cubes, you can pop them right in your mouth for a crunchy, and mostly sting-free, snack. They taste like spinach.

We found this out on Stuart Island, the northernmost of the San Juan Islands, where we went last week to camp. There are no towns there, no electricity even. So by modern standards, there’s not much to do.

Whittling sticks, going all “Lord of the Flies” with packs of other kids, eating nettles — this is the type of stuff that can happen when school’s out and there’s “nothing” to do.

So I had to groan when I saw there’s a big new push on for what’s called “expanded learning time” — longer hours in school. A group called the National Center on Time and Learning released a report about it last week and got 40 education groups to back a bill pending in Congress.

The gist is that in the summer, kids forget what they just learned. Kids doing well tend to fall back less than kids who are behind. So the summer slide hurts everyone but is blamed especially for widening the achievement gap.

“The conventional school calendar of 180 six-and-a-half hour days … is simply inadequate to provide students, particularly those living in poverty, with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century global economy,” the report says.

Their solution: At least 300 hours more schooling each year (currently there are about 1,100 hours). It could come in much longer days. Six-day weeks. Or year-round schooling — meaning the end of summer vacation.

Or how about all of the above, suggested the federal education secretary, Arne Duncan, to high-schoolers last year.

“I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, 11, 12 months a year,” he said, adding: “Go ahead and boo me.”

OK. Booo!

How about kids will go to school six, seven days a week when Congress agrees to work more than four.

Seriously, it’s probably true that summer widens the achievement gap. But wouldn’t the answer to that be summertime help for those who need it?

Instead, the proposed bill in Congress, called the Time for Innovation Matters in Education Act of 2011, would give grants to schools that extend the year by at least 300 hours “for all students in all grade levels at the school.”

I’m all for making school more demanding. Kids who are struggling also deserve tutors, and after-school or year-round help (it is a local embarrassment that Seattle cut its summer catch-up classes this year).

But give kids a break. They need summer. The historian Ken Gold, in his book “School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools,” debunks the idea that we got summers off only to placate big industry or agriculture. The real reason so many districts, rural and urban, created the break in the 19th century was a belief that “too much schooling impaired a child’s and a teacher’s health.”

That sounds about right to me. When school ended two weeks ago, I noticed my kids seemed almost instantly healthier and more engaged with what was going on around them. Less weary.

Their schools have been great. But there’s no getting around that schools are institutions. Even the best can exact a certain toll on the soul.

When the kids hit that island after 10 months of regulated learning, they scattered like dandelion seeds. They were free.

Doesn’t that value, of freedom, count anymore? Or is it all now about prepping for the 21st-century global economy.

I know, not everyone can go to the San Juans. But we could try to spread summer’s spirit, instead of giving up on it.

Give more kids a chance to run free. It may not be “expanded learning time.” It can expand you just the same.

Until then, if they want to take away this family’s summer vacation, they’ll have to pry it from our nettle-stung fingers.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.