Five Fun Ideas for Summer Learning
By Denene Millner
There’s all that ripping and running during the school year - the super early mornings and the sweating over homework late into the evening and all the activities and volunteering and, good grief, work, in between it all. Summer comes along and I promise you, sometimes I’m more grateful for the two-month-long break from school than my kids are. Still, after a week of their slogging around the house, sleeping, playing video games, eating everything in sight and staring at the TV for hours on end, I’m convinced their brains will turn to complete mush if I don’t get them up, moving and learning while they’re on summer vacation.
There’s a smidge of truth to that "summer mind mush" logic, you know. Educators refer to it as the "summer slide", when kids lose valuable math and reading skills over idle summer months. The problem is particularly acute with low-income students, who typically have fewer enrichment activities, like camp, science and art classes and community enrichment programs. With two months of learning lost to lazy summer days, all-too-many of our kids go back to school having forgotten what they learned during the school year before, leaving teachers to play an exhaustive game of catch-up during the first few months of school, instead of teaching our kids something new.
Granted, booking up my daughters’ summer vacay with camps and classes isn’t necessarily an option; with camps running anywhere from $200 to $300 per week, we simply can’t afford them. But we’re a creative bunch, and with a little imagination, we keep our girls’ minds active during the summer - and liking it! Here, five creative ideas for summer learning.
- Take a few pages from the book, "50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)". Yes, to the risk-averse, this book can seem a little bananas. I mean, let your kid super glue his fingers together? Explode a bottle in the freezer? Boil water in a paper cup? What good parent exposes her kid to that kind of risk? *Raises hand* I do. See, letting my kids experiment with dangerous things helps foster their creativity, teaches them problem solving and encourages them to explore the world around them - all the things that contribute to a well-rounded educational experience outside the classroom. Plus, it’s fun. "50 Dangerous Things" is written like a field guide, with easy-to-follow instructions, plus space for notes and completion dates for 50 child-friendly challenges. Granted, letting them burn stuff with a magnifying glass and shock their tongues by licking a 9-volt battery, won’t be easy at first (for you), but the giggles and memories will get you brave quickly, trust.
- Read to your child. Of course, your children should be reading books during the summer - that’s a given. But when you read to your child, rather than simply let her read on her own, you help her develop language and listening skills and better understand the words and lessons in the stories. Read to little ones and the rhythm and melody in picture books helps make learning to read easier. For older kids already reading on their own, reading aloud stories beyond their reading level - taking the time to explain the plots, character motivations and the like - helps your child’s reading comprehension and motivates them to read beyond their level. Note: reading to your kid never gets old. My 12-year-old daughter, about to head into 7th grade, loves when I read to her, particularly if cuddling is involved.
- Get cooking in the kitchen. Yes, there will be a mess. Yes, chances are it will taste like chef G. Garvin’s four-year-old cousin, the one with nary a cooking skill, made it. But cooking involves an incredible amount of educational skill: vocabulary (what’s a skillet? What does "grating" mean?), beginning science concepts (how do you get water to boil? What does raw meat look like, vs. cooked?), lessons on following directions, and basic math skills and reading comprehension. Plus, you’ll get to spend quality time together, and your child will be proud of her creation. I step it up a notch for my older daughter by letting her plan the meal, write out the grocery list, calculate the cost of the meal and even shop for the ingredients, introducing more math skills, money management and independence.
- Let your child plan your vacation. When we make summer out-of-town visits, I put my little junior travel agents on the case and have them research the cities we’re visiting, then plot out the history of the city, tourist attractions, economical places to eat, plus the cost to get to where we’re going, whether it’s by train, plane or automobile. Bonus: they’re excited about the trip because they get to see up close what they read about in books, magazines and websites, and I got to see the city through my kids’ eyes.
- Get out and explore. Museums and other cultural institutions usually have discounted summer rates at least one day out of the week, designed specifically to make their exhibits and programs available to families who otherwise would hesitate to pay expensive entrance fees. Earlier this summer, our local museum featured a beautiful collection of historical African American artifacts, which it showed for free on the third weekend of every month. Score! Walking through a local street fair, or going on a treasure hunt for great books in your local library are also great - and free! - ways to get in some culture and see things your kids won’t soon find on the couch.