5 Ways to Keep Your Kids' Brains Active All Summer Long

Kids across the country recently closed their books, put down their pencils and adjusted their inner clocks to the unstructured hours of summer. While it’s a necessary break from the routine of school, summer can also be a great time to find fun ways to keep kids from losing what they’ve learned.

Studies going back decades have documented a “summer slide” among kids who don’t engage in enough mental work during summer vacation. Then, in the fall, teachers must spend weeks reviewing concepts students learned the previous year before moving on to the new grade’s lessons, says Patricia Froelich, youth services consultant for Colorado State Library.

To combat the slide, parents can strike a balance between learning and fun, infusing summer lessons with informality and grabbing opportunities to teach where they can find them. Most have learned through trial and error that sitting kids down at set times of day with work to do in the summer backfires. The more it feels like schoolwork, the faster you lose them.

In contrast, keeping it fun can not only keep kids from falling behind but also may give them a leg up when they head back to class in the fall.

“A lot of it is just hiding the learning in the fun,” says Christy Wright, director of Big Horn K-12 summer school in Wyoming. “We’re very anti-worksheet, anti-sitting in desks. We want movement, music and kids getting engaged. We don’t want ‘kill and drill,’ we’re totally opposed to that. It’s all activity-based learning.”

Here are some ways to keep kids’ minds active when they’re out of school:

1) Summer reading

Summer reading programs have been around for a century, providing age-appropriate options for kids of every grade and helping those who aren’t naturally great readers to find the material that will make them want to pick up a book, says Froelich.

“Public libraries are trying to do more outreach and trying to connect more with parents to get their kids reading in the summer,” she says.

Books designed as bridges from the old grade to the new are also available and can help prepare kids to start classes in the fall. Still, parents don’t necessarily need an outside program to keep kids engaged with books.

Lisa Parry’s inspiration for helping keep her kids’ brains sharp this summer came on Mother’s Day, when 6-year-old Grace and 4-year-old Sean asked if they could get out the beads and make their mom some jewelry.

“They were having so much fun, and as I was thinking about the end of the school year, I thought ‘Hey, they really thought beading was fun,’ and then I thought beads seemed like an easy way for Grace to keep track of the books she was reading,” Parry says.

Armed with a stack of appropriate books for a child transitioning from 1st to 2nd grade, Parry made the simple rules, with the goal of getting in 30 minutes of daily reading this summer. Each time Grace finishes reading a book aloud to her mom or dad, she gets to put another bead on a string that’s hanging on the wall.

Now, Grace watches her accomplishments grow while her parents see her reading improve.

2) Science, from nature to chemistry set

Families who spend quality summer time camping and hiking have abundant natural learning resources.

If you’re traveling to another part of the country or the world for outdoor adventures, do some homework first with your kids about what you’re likely to see when you get there. If you’re closer to home, take along books about the natural flora and fauna, so your kids have a resource to learn more about the nature they’ve just met in person.

Indoor science lessons (cleverly disguised as games or toys) may be just as valuable, teaching not only science concepts but also fostering skills kids will need when they head back to the classroom.

Kelly Pascal Gould, mother of Jackson, 7, and almost-2-year-old Georgia, says her son naturally gravitates toward experiments and creative projects so she stocked up last spring on chemistry sets and science kits hoping to engage Jackson, a budding inventor who needs to increase his attention span.

“I try to use those things as a gateway to get him better at things he’s not so good at yet, like remaining focused when he’s back in the classroom,” Gould says.

Recently, she spent $8.99 for a Soda Can Robug kit, which turns an old soda can into a robot. Jackson loves it, she says, because he put it together himself and he can watch it scoot around. Meanwhile, he’s learning about recycling and mechanics, while also soaking up lessons in focusing on a task until it’s complete.

In Wright’s summer school program, many of the students referred to her classes have trouble concentrating in class. She says that projects that teach them about science, nature and how things work tend to keep them focused on the task at hand and also begin to ingrain better concentration habits for the future.

In the three years that Wright has run the program, the vast majority of summer school students either maintain or improve on their standardized test scores, she says. Even better, most head back to class in the fall better able to tune out distractions and focus on the work in front of them.

3) Games

You might think that hours spent at the game console are anything but mindless wasted time, but some of the newer games actually get kids moving more than a joystick and may actually improve their ability to focus and learn new skills, says Wright.

In her summer school program, kids come in early to play Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, and Wright encourages those and other games played on consoles like Xbox, PlayStation and Wii. Games that engage the body while encouraging mental concentration not only help kids learn, they also prepare younger students to sit still for lessons later, she says.

“Cross-lateral movement, which means doing something crossover like jumping rope or playing ball, is good because they’re using one side of the body and that engages the other side of the brain, so both body and mind are moving,” she says. “It helps kids comprehend, and then settle down and learn.”

More traditional games can also provide a learning experience. Susan Aust’s sons Tucker, 13, and Bailey, 11, are currently working on creating a new board game that’s a combination of Life and Monopoly. The kids make up the rules as they go along based on their research into the existing games.

“They’ve researched all the images and they’re really having fun in the process,” says Aust. “Summer is a time to pursue what really interests them.”

4) Cooking

To enjoy the fruits of their culinary labors, kids must first master reading, measuring and following directions -- lessons that are much easier to swallow when they come in the form of a tasty dish they’ve made themselves, says Wright.

It may take patience on the part of parents who see cooking as another household chore to complete as quickly as possible, but taking the time to teach kids cooking skills actually forces us to slow down and remember there’s joy to be found in the kitchen when you have someone to share the work.

Parry’s daughter Grace loves to help in the kitchen, and kids generally enjoy the tangible sense of accomplishment when they put a meal they’ve helped create on the table.

“She’s old enough now where she can measure and scoop,” Parry says. “It’s fun for both of us.”

If the experience still leaves you feeling that cooking is just work, well, at least you’re training someone else to someday take over in the kitchen.

5) Set up an art studio; foster creative pursuits

Gould set up a place where Jackson could go and create to his heart’s content. The art room has just about anything a budding artist needs to create his own unique works of art, she says.

She stocked up on art and activity books, including one titled “Leonardo DaVinci for Kids,” which includes stories about the artist, his life and work, as well as activities for children to help them absorb what they’re learning.

Jackson also recently learned to embroider, a tedious task that requires complete focus and offers something creative to show at the end.

Aust’s older son Tucker is into art of a different kind, having developed a love of all things theatrical and voraciously reading books about famous actors and actresses, she says. So, this summer Aust started a weekly film festival.

“He has said ‘I want to learn more about famous actresses,’” she says. “One weekend, we had an Audrey Hepburn marathon and another weekend, Grace Kelly. Then we talk about their work and their lives.”

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