You don’t flip an Off switch in your brain just because the lights in the classroom have gone dark. Summer is a break from school - it shouldn’t be a break from learning.
I still remember that feeling - the sense of wild elation that sent my classmates and me running through the school doors and outside to freedom on the last day of school. What school kid hasn’t felt that way? And it’s completely understandable after all those months of lessons and homework and tests.
But here’s the thing: You don’t flip an Off switch in your brain just because the lights in the classroom have gone dark. Summer is a break from school - it shouldn’t be a break from learning. Think about it: If you were a tennis player or a soccer star and you didn’t play for three months, what would your game look like? The dreaded “summer slide,” when children regress in their academic performance during the school vacation, is a real thing: typically, kids will lose a full two months’ work of reading progress over the summer. Yikes!
So how do you keep your kids’ minds and neural pathways open during the summer without making them crack textbooks or write book reports? (As if!) You do it by making reading and math a fun part of summer vacation, in ways that tap into the kids’ own interests. It’s sort of the Mary Poppins “spoonful of sugar” approach - minus the cavities.
- Set goals. Get your kids involved in a goal-setting session for the summer - one that includes you, too! They should be actively involved in the choice, so it’s something they’re excited about. Create a graphic novel? Use one new word each day? Go on a math scavenger hunt, discovering new places where you use math without realizing it? Remember to set a goal for yourself, too. Have weekly dinner show and tell sessions about the progress you’ve made on your goals.
- Create incentives. I don’t think of these as bribes; I like to think of them as motivators. “If you read every day for 2 weeks straight, we’ll get tickets to the baseball game.” Choose the goal, and let the kids help pick the reward based on their interests. Maybe they’d like to go fishing or horseback riding or to the movies.
- Read everywhere. Do your best to get your kids on a program of 20 to 30 minutes of reading each day. It can be books, kids’ magazines, newspapers, kid-friendly reading apps on an iPad or computer. Designate a certain time of day as daily reading time, whether everyone reads on their own or you take turns reading aloud to each other. You can even create a family book club, where all of you read the same book, then come back together and discuss it (preferably over pizza or another meal of your kids’ choice!).
- Go on library adventures. I love the idea of weekly visits to the library, when the kids can explore the shelves on their own and pick out books on their own. When they’ve chosen their own books, they’re much more likely to enjoy and engage in the reading project. Just make sure the books are at or just above their reading level, so they don’t get bored or frustrated with a book that’s too easy or too hard for them. Best of all: Get them their very own library cards, if they don’t already have one.
- Read before you go. Before that excursion to the Egyptian exhibit at the museum, or that family vacation to Yellowstone, have the kids do some research prior to the trip. Use the encyclopedia, or the museum website, or the National Park Service website (nps.org). Have them choose particular sites or exhibits they’d like to see - it makes the experience much more meaningful when they finally get to see them in person!
- Cook up some learning fun. Recruit your kids to help you prepare their favorite dish or dessert from a recipe. This is a great way to get them reading and doing math at the same time—following directions, engaging in critical thinking, figuring out fractions. Plus, they’ll have something delicious to eat at the end of it!
- Shop for smarts. Even going to the grocery or department store can be a fun math experience: What’s on sale? If this item is 10% off, how much is it? If you have a coupon, how much will this toothpaste cost? Can you add up the prices of everything in the shopping cart? How about if you round them up?
- Play the numbers game. Summer is baseball season! And look at all those player stats - RBIs, on-base percentages, pitchers’ averages. It’s a great way to score a few math lessons in a painless way!
- Go outside! There are plenty of ways to open those neural pathways out in the open air, too! Go to the zoo, to a free outdoor concert (music is great for kids’ brains), take a hike. Let each child take pictures, and create a paper or online scrapbook (with captions!) so they can remember their adventures. My kids and I would “grow a pizza” each summer: we’d plant tomatoes and basil and any other vegetables we liked, and put them on a homemade pizza!
- Be a role model. When your kids see you reading a book or a newspaper, they see that you value the written word, and that you’re aware of what’s going on in the world. That’s an incredibly important lesson you can teach your kids, without even saying a word!
You’ll find many more wonderful ideas on the website of the National Summer Learning Association (summerlearning.org), which has been endorsed by Michelle Obama. You certainly want to keep your body in shape during the summer - help your kids keep their brains in shape, too.