Summer is what you call a good news/bad news proposition. It’s good news for kids, who are usually ecstatic to be out of school and free of homework and tests. But for parents, summer is, if not bad news, at least a serious challenge. If you’re a parent who works outside the home, it means finding day care or spending money on expensive camps. If you are a stay-at- home parent, it can mean three months of having the kids at home. All day. Every day. Say no more.
In either situation, there’s also the dreaded “summer slide” to worry about—the academic decline that children experience while they’re out of school. The summer-slide effect has actually been documented by research, which shows that kids typically lose a full two months’ work of reading progress over the summer. That’s a lot of ground to regain come September.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to keep kids occupied and entertained during the summer—while keeping their brain cells activated at the same time. And it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. I call it the “DIY Summer-Learning Camp,” with themes that can change every week. If you’re at home and can serve as Camp Counselor-in- Chief, great! If you have a job you have to go to, how about creating a summer co-op with other working parents, and sharing the expenses of a babysitter—ideally a college or grad student studying education. I’ll get you started with some suggested camp themes; I’m sure you and your kids can come up with plenty of others.
Have the kids choose five of their favorite recipes, and make one each weekday; they can also search for ideas on Pinterest or food magazine websites. (This helps them practice their research skills, which will come in handy when school starts again.) They’ll need to make shopping lists (great use of the brain’s executive functions), follow a recipe and measure ingredients (hello, math!), and work cooperatively—and they’ll have something delicious to enjoy at the end of the process.
Whether they choose an existing play, act out scenes from their favorite book, or write an original one-act play of their own, the kids will be making excellent use of their literacy skills. They can also design their own costumes and sets (calling on those creative and artistic talents), rehearse each day, and perform the play for parents and friends at the end of the week. Who knows? You may end up with a budding Daniel Radcliffe or Emma Watson in your midst.
Maybe not everyone would be as thrilled to dissect crayfish as I was one summer in my youth (I think that scientific interest led me to become a nurse years later), but there’s plenty to enjoy and to learn in the world around you. Whether the kids examine seashells on the beach, plant seeds for vegetables in your kitchen window, look up the names and habits of the birds in your neighborhood, or concoct multicolored “Slime” from Borax and Elmer’s Glue, they can be riveted for hours once they start focusing on what’s right before their eyes.
Here’s a great way to help children develop not just their IQ but also their EQ—their emotional intelligence. These are the skills such as empathy and understanding of others that will benefit them socially, academically, and professionally throughout their lives. Activities can include visiting seniors in a local retirement home; setting up a lemonade stand to raise money for a charity of the kids’ choice; writing letters to our soldiers oversees; or volunteering to do chores for neighbors. Have the kids write and/or draw a little story at the end of each day to express how they felt about doing these things. Save the letters for the kids to look back on a year or two later!
You can always sprinkle in additional activities like reading (everywhere, anywhere, anytime!); visits to the library (kids love picking out their own books); museum trips; zoo and park outings; sporting events (don’t forget the math opportunities in the player stats!); going swimming in the community pool. And hey, you can even let the kids play some video games—once in a while.
Denise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.