Summer is almost over and, according to researchers, my kids have by now lost over two months of the knowledge drilled into them last year. Any seasoned teacher will tell you that they spend up to six weeks at the start of the school year reprogramming kids’ brains from the seasonal learning loss/water damage of the summer vacation. A 2004 John Hopkins University study stated (a little more officially) that on average, students lose about 2.6 months of mathematical learning and from one to three months of reading loss—with low-income students experiencing the most significant loss—over the summer break.
With such stats in mind, I researched the recommendations of teachers and “learning experts” to see what I, as a parent, could do over the summer to prevent my kids from needing to play catch-up in September. I found stodgy and uninspired recommendations like “get to know your library,” “take a summer class,” “explore parent-approved learning Web sites,” and “write book reports.” Don’t these experts know that “learning is fun” sounds like “vegetables are delicious” to vacationing kids? Puhlease!
Fortunately, our summer was not a complete brain drain. I discovered a few sneaky ways to keep my kids’ brains at work while they were on vacation, and you know what? Learning really can be fun. (Just don’t tell your kids!)
Explore the Blogosphere
Last summer, I bought my son a beautiful leather-bound diary to keep track of his summer exploits. He was sporadic with his efforts and I ended up nagging him to write entries. This summer, I created a blog for him to document his summer for friends and family and he nagged me for constant access to my laptop. Every outing was a potential blog entry; every interesting view/object was a possible photo or video op to illustrate the blog. With regular enthusiastic writing, kids become reporters of their own lives and get practiced at noticing and recounting interesting details. Also, with an audience, kids make more of an effort to write well, knowing their friends and family will be checking it out. A nice bonus is that kids also get more practiced at typing, photography, grammar, spelling, proofreading, and even layout, while far-away relatives are kept up-to-date with family news.
Tip: Most blogging services have privacy features that allow you to control who can access your child’s blog. Check what restrictions are available before you sign up, and then use them—it is possible to communicate with friends and family without opening the blog up to the entire Internet. Also, creating a blog is a good opportunity to have that necessary Internet-safety conversation with your child.
Make Reports Relevant
I wonder how many kids saw The Dark Knight or Wall-E this summer. Now, how many kids would jump at the chance to write a report comparing The Dark Knight to the rest of the Batman series or a review of Wall-E instead of a report on a book they read last year? (As a reliable sixth-grade source told me, most kids do for summer book reports.)
I’m regretting that I didn’t ask my son’s school if instead of assigning the standard (yawn) book reports over vacation breaks, they might consider allowing kids the option to write other kinds of reports—blockbuster movie reports, video game reviews, a music/sports event report, or even a review of a hotel, restaurant, or a new flavor of ice cream they tried out. Sure, some kids will still choose the book report, but hopefully because they are genuinely excited about a book.
Tip: Have kids act as the family journalists for the summer and “hire” them to write reviews of family functions, recording quotes of ornery old aunts, and troublemaking cousins. Then publish their reports in a family newsletter using a Word template. This can make for very colorful writing and very interesting reading!
Add Some Math (Don’t Subtract the Fun)
I had somewhat resigned myself to the kids losing more than two months of math knowledge in my mathematically-challenged company over the summer until I realized that I didn’t need to create math in our everyday activities—it’s already there. I just needed to be creative in getting the kids to practice it. (Without knowing they were practicing it!)
We traveled a lot this summer, and when we were out of the country, I delegated all conversion tasks to my eldest son. He got to monitor currency exchange rates and memorize formulas for temperature and metric system conversions. It was a win-win situation: he got to feel like he knew more than the adults, and we were able to let our brains turn to mush. You can also make use of international events like the Olympics to trigger random conversions and calculations for your kids.
At home, create an electronic spreadsheet for your child and designate him/her as your vacation social coordinator. They will need to schedule and track summer appointments, and, more importantly, manage the summer budget. If everyone votes for a ballpark outing, junior needs to decide how much each family member needs to save each week to make it happen and then distribute funds on the day of the game. I now have my son helping me manage my shoe-budget!
Tip: Make it official and pay your kid an allowance to act as resident math expert for all calculations and conversions over the summer. A live-in mathematician is not cheap, but it’s cheaper than paying for a math tutor come fall.
Tap into Their Interests
The goal is to get kids reading, and the key is to feed their interests—I could care less if my kids are reading Shakespeare or the back of the cornflake box, as long as they’re reading.
There are books, newspaper sections, and magazines to suit any and every interest. Instead of fighting your kid’s obsession with videogames, feed it with video game reviews and magazines. Movie lover? Have your kid read the comics or novels that inspired the movies they watched or plan to watch over the vacation. My eleven-year-old is sports-obsessed, so before summer vacation, we picked up a bunch of sports-themed books by author Mike Lupica and he inhaled them. I also got him a subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids and casually left the sports section of daily newspapers lying about for him to “stumble” upon. On a whim, I picked up an issue of Rolling Stone magazine before a long flight—my eldest is learning to play guitar and the issue included a roundup of the greatest guitar songs. He read the magazine threadbare and was inspired to want to read (yes, read!) more about all of the famous guitarists mentioned, and even to try to learn to play their songs.
Tip: Don’t restrict yourself to the kids’ section in the library/newsagents. Sure, vet what they read first (rip out any inappropriate content), but don’t be afraid to take a risk. Pre-teen kids especially will appreciate “mature” (but still monitored) concessions.
Play Games with Their Heads
I picked up a few Mad Libs books on impulse for a long flight early in the summer and we’re still rereading entries at the end of the summer. My soon-to-start-Kindergarten five-year-old can now tell you that a noun is a “person, place, or thing” thanks to Mad Libs, and we all have a greater appreciation for my mother’s colorful rotation of adjectives after many hilarious games with her on long car rides.
Hangman is another oldie but goodie, as is Scrabble. They’re hours of fun, and a sneaky way to get your kids working on their spelling skills.
Tip: For added learning/hilarity, have kids fill in the Mad Lib blanks in a language that they are learning in school or decide to adopt a new language together. Get yourselves some foreign language dictionaries, and before long, you’ll all have a wider vocabulary.
Scholars suggest that the solution to learning loss is more school, less vacation. I suggest the people who proposed this plan are only jealous that they will never be relaxed enough to lose two months of learning. Sure, we might get better-performing kids and better test scores as a result of a longer school year, but our kids lose family time, travel time, and free time in the process, and that’s a loss we can never regain. If I learned anything this summer, it’s that with a little creativity and a lot of attention to what actually interests our kids, we can send them back to school smarter—not dumber!