Monday, July 11, 2011

Weekly Column: Summer Learning

In a few family and parenting magazines I’ve picked up recently, publishers are reporting on an intriguing new study about children’s education.  The study by RAND Corp. and Wallace Foundation points to the newly-documented but long-suspected loss of learning in school aged children during summer vacations.  It can leave parents wondering how to help combat those losses.  After all, none of us want to see our kids fall behind if there are simple ways to keep their brains agile all summer long. 
At the same time, many of us still hold a special place in our hearts for the unstructured benefits of a summer spent in discovery and play and nature.  But creating a summer filled with beneficial learning opportunities doesn’t always mean that our kids need to be enrolled in summer school or private programs.  Though those are helpful options for many parents, they aren’t the only options. 
Before we start assuming we don’t have the resources to continue our children’s education after school lets out, we just need to refocus what the purpose of summer learning actually needs to be. 
Letting our kids’ brains grow in the off-season doesn’t have to be intimidating.  We don’t have to be professionals with lesson plans, pounding new information into their heads.  Rather, summertime can be about practice.  It can be as simple as listening to their interests, gauging their skill-levels, and providing chances for those two factors to intersect. 
If they’re having a ton of fun making homemade ice cream, we can research together the scientific properties that come together to make the deliciousness possible.  They can measure cream and sugar and decide how much salt is needed to help the ice melt just slowly enough.  If they loved seeing the penguin habitat at the zoo, finding books we can read aloud together to prolong their interest is both easy and diverting. 
Consider summer plans, even if they are a purposeful lack of plans, and find ways to incorporate the practice of school-year skills which can so easily fall by the wayside.  Opportunities are everywhere.
Even in the time-honored childhood tradition of a summer lemonade stand, our kids will use math to plan how much of an ingredient is needed to sell a certain number of drinks.  They’ll need more math to calculate sale totals and return change.  Art and writing skills will be used in helping them craft and create an enticing sign. 
If we’ll be going on a family vacation, we could encourage our kids of all ages to keep travel journals.  They may never imagine that their records are actually helping them use and develop important grammar and writing practice, thus keeping those skills fresh for the upcoming school year.  And if we plan to visit famous historic or geographic sites, a stop by the library first to gather reading material will encourage them to learn more about their travels and boost their reading skills.
At home, try to limit screen time so that any summer experience, whether educational in nature or purely unstructured fun, will enhance their memories and allow time for discovery.  It’s also important – not only in summertime – to give ourselves time for family read-aloud sessions.  We must encourage questions and be willing to learn something new ourselves. 
Because that old adage that calls parents the first, best teachers has withstood the test of time for a reason: it’s true.
And summer is the perfect time to put it into practice once again.


  1. I couldn't agree more with your advice in this post Sarah. Now that I see first hand the intense focus that is now on reading and math and the little time left for arts, geography, culture, social studies, SCIENCE...etc, we try to embrace those things in our home every day. I truly believe with the testing demands placed on teachers, we have to do those things to expose our kiddos.
    Great post!
    P.S. Maps are great too. They make great kid room decoration and we point out areas from different story books and put stars on places we travel.

  2. Loved this one today Sarah. It is right on. We do limit the screen time and find physical things for the kids to do. Currently, the favorite is swimming. I think when you make activity fun, it accomplishes so many things for them. We also do "summer school". workbooks and reading books and time in the library. They actually seem to love it.

  3. Lots of wisdom here! I hope all parents will strive to keep their kids learning even when they're not in the classroom. I want to remember this when I have little ones!


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