The lazy, carefree days of summer are certainly on the horizon. I’m sure most would agree that after the long, wintry season, we are all looking forward to the change of pace with joyful smiles, enthusiastic sighs of relief, and open arms. Kids of all ages are thrilled and relieved to escape the grind of homework as well as the daily rituals and routines of academic school life. On the other hand, there are many anxious parents out there already experiencing high levels of anxiety, agonizing over the imminent challenges of keeping their children physically busy and mentally active during the long summer days ahead. Summertime can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you must consider how you’re going to keep the kids occupied, entertained and out of trouble for that length of time. The best advice I can offer would be to use your child’s interests to your advantage and build in as many worthwhile learning opportunities into those activities. Summer learning loss is real but preventable. Try not to let your child fall victim to summer learning loss which could hinder their academic readiness for the next grade level. Take advantage of the off-school months by engaging your children in mindful thinking and mental stimulation without the academic pressure. If your child has a passion for a specific activity, hobby or subject, make sure you give them the opportunity to explore these passions. Summer break is here but that doesn’t mean your kids have to take a break from learning.

As a former teacher and principal for over three decades, I have witnessed far too often what can occur during eight plus weeks of non-school time. On average, students lose approximately two and half months of learning in math and two months of reading skills over the Summer. These gaps in learning may be particularly detrimental for students with lower academic achievements due to learning differences, lower socioeconomic environments or learning in a secondary language. Students of all learning abilities come to school daily and work too hard during the academic school year to have their knowledge and skills regress. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, many kids return to school in August much worse off in mathematics and reading than they finished in the Spring. What’s even more of a concern is that children who lack access to summer learning opportunities are less likely to be physically active and are more prone to spending their days watching TV and eating junk food. Regrettably, it is these inactive behaviors that are contributing significantly to America’s ballooning childhood obesity epidemic. This issue has been a major topic for many prominent education experts for quite some time.  In truth, many of them have proposed making major changes, such as lengthening the school year or replacing the long Summer months with several shorter breaks distributed throughout the year.

Let’s face it, school is much more rigorous now than at any other time in history, placing teachers and students under a great amount of pressure to perform. The days of using the months of August and September to review forgotten information are over.  Now, teachers are expected to jump right into the grade level curriculum at the start of the first bell in August.  As I reflect on my principal days, I can vividly recall my teachers walking into the school building during preplanning, all electrified and inspired about making a significant difference in the lives of children. The ambiance and excitement of a brand-new beginning were incredible energizers. It was evident that these teachers were passionate about their role as educators. More notably however were the concerns many of them regarding the overwhelming amount of time they would have to devote in playing catch up with a targeted group of students. The disproportionate amount of learning loss during the summer months is shocking. It is a proven fact that the academic delays that occur over the Summer is perhaps one of the greatest challenges confronting teachers at the beginning of each school term. There’s no getting around it:  Over the Summer months, our children can lose up to 60% of the math and reading skills that they learned during the school year. Without regular practice, new skills and knowledge fade. The good news is that there are a variety of fun filled ways to easily and effectively bridge the Summer learning gap while preparing our children for the school year ahead.

I genuinely believe that Summer is the perfect time for children to rediscover that learning is fun and can happen anywhere. Summertime can furthermore present opportunities for parents to introduce their child to new experiences, promote emotional development and engage in a hosts of creative learning experiences that may not be available to them during the school year. The truth of the matter is, there’s a wide array of original and inexpensive activities that can be enjoyed and appreciated without having lost any academic ground.  Here are some suggestions to help bridge the Summer gap. This list is just a start. Instead of thinking Summer vacation, think of it is as a ‘Summer Discovery List’ guaranteed to turn each day’s activities into teachable moments.

Develop a Family Summer Bucket List. The key to having a fun-filled Summer is to intentionally plan it!  To get your family’s Summer adventures heading in the right direction, start with a brainstorming activity and compile a summer bucket list together. Decorate a huge basket with colorful paper and bows to place your ideas. It’s fun and exciting to come up with goals using input from the whole family.  Kids love to feel that their contributions count.  Involving your kids in this activity will get their imaginations flowing while investing their interest in the plan. The one thing they will learn for sure is that while some adventures may have a price tag, many remarkable experiences costs little or no money at all. The bucket list should include all the desired favorite activities and new adventures you would like to take on during the Summer. It will create an incredible reminder of what you decided to pursue as a family and why! Research has proven that giving kids visual reminders of important rules, routines or schedules will enhance learning by fostering an “I Can Do This” sense of independence and control in addition to a language-rich environment. What’s more, creating a family summer bucket-list can build memories as a family while sneaking a few educational lessons in along the way. Great examples could include but are not limited to the following; Watch the sunset together in the backyard. Don’t forget to bring the bug repellent and rent bikes and follow a local bike path. Stop for ice cream cones along the way. Reinforce communication and math skills by simply preparing family meals together. Travel the world from the comfort of your own living room using the internet. Geography was always a big hit at our house when I was growing up as a kid. My sister and I spent many hours looking at an atlas in the club house my dad built for us in the backyard. It was a great source of maps, had colorful photos and explanations of beautiful places. This was not only lots of fun but was also a great learning tool to develop a natural curiosity about different destinations to visit, cultures to experience and foods to eat. Why not run through the sprinkler together on a hot afternoon or count the stars on a blanket in the backyard before bedtime. You can plan lots of fantastic memories and include them on your bucket list, even if you don’t have the money or time to head off on vacation. Remember, what really matters is always how it FEELS, not how it LOOKS.  Your child doesn’t need a Martha Stewart activity, just a loving connection with you.

Institute daily reading time and schedule regular library visits.  Make visiting the local library part of your summer plan. Books open the imagination, make time disappear and gives a wholesome alternative to screens. Reading is also very highly correlated with school achievement. Studies have shown that reading four to five books over the summer yields comparable to attending summer school. Summer reading is critically important but it doesn’t always boost skills and that’s because children need books that are both interesting and challenging. When either component is missing, they are less likely to improve.  A family trip to the library is a delightful source for many activities. Find out if your public library is part of the Collaborative Summer Library Program, a grassroots effort to provide high-quality summer reading programs for kids.   Pizza Hut generally offers the BOOK IT Summer Program. Most of the kids are familiar with this innovative rewards program.  Over at Scholastics, there’s the Happy Camper Summer Reading Challenge that encourages kids to log the minutes they spend reading and map their accomplishments. Your child can participate in weekly challenges, earn digital rewards and enter to win prizes. What’s more, Barnes & Noble has a Summer Reading Program that gives a free book to children who read eight books. Parents can also receive a summer reading list full of great activities.  Why not use books as a springboard for conversations, to promote creativity and a great way to inspire your child to acquire new background knowledge?

Go on fun-filled field trips together. Beat the heat and learn something new at your local art, science and history museums. You can open all kinds of hands-on experiences in addition to opportunities for everyone to engage in fun-filled family conversations. Not only do your children benefit from mutual discussions about the field trips but they can also gain worthwhile information from the reading.  They can draw pictures and write stories about what interests them about their excursions. Researchers tested the effectiveness of a family museum visit on children’s learning and found that certain strategies had a favorable impact. Kids learned more when their museum visits included a hands-on component, especially when their parents asked them open-ended questions. A trip to the farmer’s market is also a great idea.  Your child can try new foods while expanding their horizons in ways that they will never forget.  Do something amazing like scheduling a trip to the bakery, the farmer’s market, the zoo and various historical sites—all of which provide a myriad of memorable learning opportunities. Remember, you don’t have to travel far or spend lots of money, every city has its own historical sites. You may be surprised at what’s available right here in your very own town.

Create a summer photo album. Why not plan some fantastic memories together this summer and host a family culminating celebration during the Labor Day weekend? Each family member could bring pictures, special writings, artifacts and souvenirs to add to the scrapbook.  The artifacts could be from the Summer activities, trips or memorable excursions you experienced. Think about it, if you do this every Summer, you’ll create precious family heirlooms, not to mention a family tradition that will have your kids bragging about how fantastic their Summer was. With this fun-filled project, everyone wins. What’s even more gratifying is that this can bring enormous joy to the faces of those both young and old.   

Plant a Garden with numerous opportunities. For starters, you will be teaching your child essential skills such as planning, organizing  and goal setting. Problem solving and critical thinking are important components for children interested in succeeding in today’s ever-changing economy so turn Summer learning into a fun-filled outdoor experience.  Not only will this outdoor project provide active engagement but will also connect real-world learning to summer fun.

Cook with your kids. Recipes are a lot like a mathematical equation and you can help your children remember their fractions this summer by teaching them how to cook a new recipe. Cooking is a great way to reinforce math skills by teaching measurements and how to use fractions. Schedule theme nights as a family. This not only helps with cooking skills but teaches your child how to measure and convert weights, volumes and numbers. This is also a good time to talk about nutrition and how to make healthy food choices. If you want to take it a step further, design your very own cookbook with family recipes and noteworthy wellness tips. Years down the road, you will look back and pull this recipe book from the shelf and begin to feel butterflies in your stomach as you reflect on the happy times that filled your heart.

Summer Programs-Camps.  Engaging kids in Summer camp is an excellent way to keep them learning and entertained, all at the same time. If you are lucky enough to send your child to camp over the Summer, be sure it’s a camp that focuses on their interests. Performing arts centers, parks and recreation departments, nature, sports programs, day camps and programs sponsored by the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs are great places to start. They offer a wide variety of innovative activities for kids during the Summer and camps can also be terrific place for teens to land summer jobs.

Volunteer Positions for the Older Teen.  Volunteering builds job skills, character and an opportunity to build self-confidence and communication skills.  This learning experience could furthermore lead to a paying position down the road. Although it doesn’t result in a paycheck right now, it does allow your child to contribute to their community and learn responsibility, while building a fine resume.

Start a Neighborhood Book Club.  This project is indeed a great way to keep the Summer learning social and unpretentious. There are a lot of terrific books that could stimulate great conversations, encourage open dialogue with friends, promote critical thinking and high-quality reading. The warm Summer weather is indeed a motivator that supports the reading habit without the added stress. Studies have shown that reading four to five books over the summer yields results comparable to attending Summer school.  Let you children pick out their own books to help facilitate a love of reading.  Getting them their own library cards to teach them the responsibility of checking out their own books and meeting return deadlines would certainly be a huge motivator. Book club members could select interesting places to meet that would encourage members to join such as intersting locations at the park, the pool, a meeting room at a local restaurant or a safe location near the lake. This activity would encourage and reinforce communication with peers, a love for reading and opportunities to engage in meaningful and worthwhile projects that interest them. 

At the end of the day, Summer can be filled with lots and lots of enriching learning experiences that children need to prepare them for school in the Fall.  Summertime is an ideal relaxed environment that gives your child a chance for independent learning. Your involvement during the Summer months is crucial to your child’s overall success. When you are actively engaged and vigilant for those teachable moments over the Summer, it will not only afford you an opportunity to enjoy that much-needed quality time but will help you to further realize how much more your child is developing into a more successful learner both in and out of school. The true joy of learning is discovering in each day, all the endless possibilities for growth, adventure, risk and exploration. Instead of agonizing about Summer learning loss, do yourself a favor and take pleasure in spending this quality time with your beautiful children by seizing the Summer with endless possibilities that truly matter!

Dr. Dana Harris, Wife, Mother, Grandmother and Retired Educator, Richmond County Public Schools. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership form Georgia Southern and has been married 38 years. The couple has a daughter Tanya and two beautiful grandchildren, London and Bryce.

This article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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