Mention summer vacation to many grade-school children, and their minds automatically turn to staying up late, sleeping in and having plenty of free time with minimal responsibilities.
Avoiding Brain Drain
Summer is also a time when kids often become bored and lack opportunities to continue learning. Brain drain refers to a child’s loss of academic skills by not engaging in educational activities over the summer. According to the American Summer Learning Association, brain drain is one of the most significant causes of the achievements gap between lower and higher income youth. According to research, most youngsters lose about two months’ worth of math skills during the summer. While children from middle-class homes may make slight gains in their reading skills between June and August, low-income youth lose more than two months’ worth of reading skills.
To prevent brain drain, it’s important to find summer activities for your children that are fun, educational and enriching. Doing so will allow kids to transition more smoothly back to school in the fall.
One of the best ways to minimize brain drain is to give your children opportunities to read. Approach assigned summer reading lists with enthusiasm, making reading a game instead of a chore. Often, free local library summer-reading programs offer prize incentives for the number of books kids read. Introduce your children to some of your favorite childhood books and keep up the dialogue by reading their favorite books and learning with makes them so special. Children can also engage in short-story writing to keep their creative juices flowing while improving their writing skills. Suggest that your kids keep a journal/scrapbook about their summer activities.
A Time for Exploration
Summer is a great time for exploring near and far, and you can make fun learning experiences from many of your family adventures. Visiting local art or science museums, parks and zoos can help your children learn about their world. Have them collect nature items and spend time learning about their origins. Gardening is a great outdoor activity that teaches patience and the basics of earth science. Visit a local farmers’ market and show your kids how to budget a small amount of money and count change as you purchase homegrown goodies.
Camp experiences are a traditional part of many children’s summers. Plenty of communities offer opportunities for free or low-cost enriching day camps for children. Check with your city’s or county’s parks department regarding the availability of camp scholarships. Themed camps allow children to explore exciting new frontiers. Enriching camp themes include space exploration, robotics, theater, sign language or foreign language, cartooning, music, science and religious study. Older children can learn about leadership and share their own specialized skills by becoming “counselors in training” at local camps.
If your child has special needs, finding summer educational opportunities can be an additional challenge. It’s important to consult your child’s school about whether he or she qualifies for extended school year programming to minimize summer learning loss. There are also day camps tailored to children with learning disabilities or specific medical diagnoses. Talk with your healthcare provider or school counselor to learn more about these opportunities.
If your child is academically gifted or has specialized artistic talent, there are plenty of fun learning options. Local colleges and museums often provide an array of offerings for gifted and talented children, including music, art, math and college-prep programs.
Learning Computer Proficiency
One fun summer educational activity that offers lifetime benefits is the development of computer skills. With the rise of information technology (IT) jobs worldwide, computer science proficiency has become an essential part of each child’s education. In his 2016 State of the Union address, former U.S. President Barack Obama emphasized the need for hands-on computer science and math classes to prepare children for jobs of the future.
STEM education refers to emphasis on the topics of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. A growing number of industries — including healthcare, finance and education — rely on individuals with computer proficiency. Our kids are exposed to computer science every time they engage in social media and computer gaming. Computer classes and games can promote learning in fun ways. There are excellent family-friendly educational fames that teach reading, math and problem-solving skills. Amazing advancements in robotics — including space exploration, self-driving cars and robot-assisted surgery — are all products of innovative computer programming.
Learning computer programming (coding) is a lot like learning a second language. Exposing children early to coding fundamentals will build a solid foundation for creative computer use throughout their lifetime. Solid programming skills can also support learning in other areas such as science, math and reading. Computer coding can be taught in creative ways to allow your kids to learn this new “language” while having fun. Many children are fascinated with video games where they construct 3-D worlds out of textured cubes, and they can be taught coding skills based on concepts from these and other games. Programming classes and camps can teach kids how to create characters, animations, sounds and special effects. Local learning centers and community colleges may offer coding classes and programming camps to help children develop these skills. You also may find free online classes by searching “coding for kids” in your search engine.
Computer use, including learning coding skills and engaging in video gaming, requires thoughtful parental monitoring. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends time limitations on digital media use for children two to five years to no more than one hour per day. For children ages six and up, caregivers need to place consistent limits on the time spent using only appropriate media outlets. Monitor your kids to make sure that media does not replace adequate sleep, physical activity and other healthy activities.
Time to Get Creative
You and your kids may struggle to find activities on rainy summer days. Don’t just turn on the TV on and let your children zone out. Since daily practice is the key to improvement, summer is a great time to begin learning a musical instrument. Research shows that learning to read music and play an instrument have a positive impact on brain development. Chess or other problem-solving board games are both enriching and fun. Children can also develop lifelong skills while practicing measurement and working with fractions by learning to cook and bake. Crafting can also be educational — check out Pinterest or library books for science experiments, historical projects and other activities that will stimulate your child’s creativity.
Remember that physical activities are essential to mind and body health. Summer offers a lot of opportunities for both organized sports and plenty of unstructured active play. Organized sports such as baseball and soccer teach teamwork skills. Independent physical activities like nature hikes or bicycling are heart-healthy ways for children to explore and learn from their environment.
Allow your children plenty of unstructured playtime, in which they can dream and be creative. Try to not overschedule your children. With some imagination and planning, your kids can have a summer filled with learning activities and happy memories.
Beth Heuer, DNP, CPNP-PC, PMHS, is a nurse practitioner at the Child Development Unit at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.