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Ask an Expert: Curbing summer brain drain.

Curbing brain drain through fun learning opportunities

Q.  I don’t want my child to lose everything he’s learned over the past school year. What activities can we do this summer to make sure he’s ready for a new grade level?

A. Long days of sunshine, blooming peonies, and bluebird skies. It’s summer in Colorado! And even though it’s been more than a few years since I’ve had a summer off, turning the calendar page from May to June still gives me an urge to wear flip flops to work and run through some sprinklers.

With the start of summer vacation, school days may start to feel like a distant memory. But for many kids, the time off  comes at a price: studies indicate that elementary, middle and high school teachers spend as much as four to six weeks of instructional time at the start of the new school year remediating students who have lost essential academic and social skills during summer vacation.

But parents can help “brain drain” during the lazy days of summer. And the good news is that it can be easier than you think. An academically rich summer doesn’t have to involve back-to-back enrichment camps or expensive tutors. And it absolutely doesn’t mean your child has to bypass the pool and the park in favor of worksheets and flashcards.

In fact, families can maximize summer learning using what we know to be best practices for learning in or out of school: using real life situations as the context and motivation for problem-solving, critical thinking, and skill building. For kids of any age, the key is capitalizing on the teachable moments in the every day. This mean calling kids’ attention to some of the places math, literacy and science skills or concepts show up in daily life.

Tips for preschoolers and kindergarteners-to-be

Practice routines

One of the biggest challenges for young children starting school or returning after the summer is the return to structured routines. School is full of these, and your child can benefit tremendously from a little summer practice in navigating transitions and approaching activities with persistence and attentiveness. You can help with this by building consistency into vacation days, too.

  • Consider creating a basic pictoral schedule for the day with simple drawings or icons representing the key elements: breakfast, brushing teeth, outdoor play, rest, baths, etc. Each day doesn’t have to be the same, and no times need to be spelled out, just the simple experience of seeing and talking about a sequence of activities and being able to prepare for what comes next.
  • Help develop sequencing and other emergent literacy skills by talking with your child about what you’ll do first, next and last, and recap and chat about the day at bedtime.
  • Lots of families also have success with a very simple version of a weekly calendar, with pictures indicating what day swim lessons will happen on, when a special visitor arrives, or the departure day for a camping trip. Think of it as a countdown to fun.

Get outdoors

Let the natural world be your playground…and art studio, math workshop, and science lab.

  • For a rich science experience, spend time exploring with your senses – discuss what you and your child see, smell, hear, feel and even taste.
  • Talk about what you notice in this season that differs from what they remember of spring, or winter.
  • Look closely at the shapes of leaves, or the way a millipede moves, and casually mention that you are doing what scientists do: looking at the world closely, and noticing.
  • Taking the inquiry process to the next step, capitalize on any questions your child comes up with (“What’s under a rock? What do ants like to eat?”) by suggesting a simple test or exploration…or even wondering aloud, “I wonder…how could we find out?” Then lift up the rock, or put out a bit of fruit, a smear of yogurt and a chocolate chip (Note: actual experiment conducted in my driveway with my 3-year-old!) and watch to discover what the ants find tastiest. In the process, children also discover that they are capable of asking interesting questions about their world and finding the answers.

Engaging the older child

Put it in context

Skill-building doesn’t have to mean repetitive practice. In fact, “skill and drill” practice teaches skills in isolation – and this can be counterproductive when it comes to transferring learning to new situations, or applying a learned skill to an unfamiliar problem. Learning to apply knowledge (such as naming geometric shapes) or skills (such as finding a mathematical average) in flexible, appropriate ways comes through experiencing knowledge and skills in context.

Consider these ideas:

  • Encourage kids to plan for and run a lemonade stand – and engage them in the work of figuring out expenses, setting prices, creating signs and marketing their product, handling money, and making change.
  • In getting ready for a summer road trip, invite kids to help you plan the route, estimate driving time, and calculate fuel expenses for the distance you’ll travel.
  • If a travel vacation isn’t in your plans this summer, suggest that kids use online resources to plan a “virtual vacation,” researching possible destinations, estimating a budget for travel, lodging, food, and activities…and even creating a brochure to “sell” their vacation idea to you for next summer.
  • At the ballpark, try calculating a player’s batting average for the game, or the team’s winning percentage so far this season. Figure out how much that lemonade costs per ounce, or listen up when they announce the size of the crowd (number of tickets sold) and calculate the gate revenue for the park that day based on your ticket price.

This is a season full of rich and meaningful ways to bring learning to life. For kids of any age, the key is capitalizing on the teachable moments in the every day. This means calling kids’ attention to the ways math, literacy and science skills or concepts show up in daily routines and experiences. It’s a great way to connect with your kids, and connect learning to life. Best of all, it leaves plenty of room for daydreaming, picnics and play.

Happy summer!

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.