Avoiding the Summer Brain Drain: Keeping Your Child’s Mind Sharp Over Summer Break

“I’ve seen studies that suggest that, during the summer months, the average youngster can lose a little over half of what they learned in school,” says Dr. Thomas Peters, director of the Anderson Oconee Pickens Hub resource center for science and math education at Clemson University in South Carolina. As a result, teachers end up spending the first few months of the new school year reviewing skills that were learned the year before. “Young children or children just mastering a new skill appear to demonstrate the greatest losses during this hiatus as they have not internalized the new skills and forget the strategies they have learned or developed,” adds Beth Strandring, M.Ed., who is the manager of education with SmarterKids.com, an online educational store and resource for parents. “There is usually a larger decline in math skills, as opposed to reading, as many children practice reading skills at least at a minimum throughout the summer months.” Still, parents shouldn’t assume that reading skills won’t suffer during vacation. According to Ball State elementary education professor Lawrence Smith, reading does not become internalized until children reach about grade four. So, if an 8-year-old third-grader does not pick up a book during July and August, reading progress won’t just halt, but regress. “If you read at a fourth grade level and you never read again, there are studies to suggest that you will regress to almost total illiteracy,” Professor Smith says. “If children are not encouraged to, they may not pick up a book.”

How Parents Can Help Truth be told, a parent is a child’s very first teacher. To that end, there are loads of things parents can do to help prepare children for September. But the work should begin way before Independence Day. A few weeks before the school year ends, ask your child’s teacher about some of the concepts your child needs to work on during the summer months. For example, if your child’s second-grade teacher says that multiplication and division are coming in third grade, you might try to incorporate into home life creative ways of thinking about math. Having your child help you follow a dinner recipe by measuring out the ingredients listed, or taking him or her to a local softball game to count the number of times batters hit doubles, are both simple, inexpensive ways to accomplish just that.

Other things to try include:

1. Taking Your Child Grocery Shopping — It may take longer, but have your child help find the groceries on your list by brand name, size or price. This will help with reading skills, sorting and counting.

2. Reading Together — For children who are just learning to read, having a parent read to him or her is a great way to improve comprehension. The child will be better able to concentrate on the story without stumbling over words that they can’t pronounce or ones they don’t know the meaning of. For older children, having a scheduled reading time where everyone in the household reads each week is a good way to show how enjoyable reading can be, and that people do actually read for pleasure.

3. Having Older Children Work With Their Younger Siblings — By reading to or interacting with younger brothers or sisters, older kids can improve their reading and math skills as well. Often, explaining a task to someone younger helps older children grasp an abstract concept a little better.

4. Visiting Area Museums, Art Galleries and Learning Centers — Summer is the ideal time for taking a trip. What better way to incorporate learning into a vacation than visiting a cultural center or a children’s museum? Many, like the Please, Touch Museum in Philadelphia or the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City encourage visitors to touch as well as look.

5. Milking Technology — For all the negative things said about both television and the Internet, there are many benefits to using each medium. There are a host of excellent science shows that encourage experimentation (like Bill Nye: Science Guy on PBS) and Internet sites that stimulate learning in off-school hours (like SmarterKids.com). There is also a bevy of children’s literature CD ROMs that read the story, highlighting the words as the story moves along. Unlike traditional story books, this can help children learn how to pronounce words correctly and aid in reading comprehension because they won’t skip over words they don’t know.

6. Keeping A Journal — Not only is a journal a good way to keep track of family happenings and activities, it makes kids transform their thoughts and ideas into tangible sentences and paragraphs. Writing is a skill that everyone can use, so encourage doing it as much as possible.

7. Seizing the Moment — Without being heavy-handed or overdoing it, you can turn even seemingly mundane moments into learning opportunities. If you and your children spend a lot of time in the car, play license plate games. Reward the person who finds the most states or who can add the first two numbers the fastest. Have your little navigators read highway billboards and road signs to you as you travel, too.

8. Using Your Resources — Many Ys, Boys and Girls Clubs and libraries offer free or low cost summer literacy or science programs. Lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks, they are excellent ways to encourage educational activities and interaction with kids outside of your child’s normal social clique.

9. Mixing It Up — We humans are social animals who learn a lot through play and interaction with others. Summer is a great time for honing developing social skills by having children interact with both older and younger kids. “Interacting with older kids encourages reaching out of the comfort zone to learn to do what the bigger kids can do,” says Dr. Peters. “Interacting with younger kids offers opportunity to practice patience and kindness and to teach.”

10. Keeping It Fun — All work and no play makes Junior a dull boy, which is why parents should remember that summer still offers a much-needed break for children. Skipping the pool parties and backyard cookouts altogether could do more harm than good. “Parents should monitor their child’s summer activities for fun and enjoyment and creative presentation,” says Strandring. “It is important that children are not ‘burned-out’ upon returning to school.”

Learning Freebies Not only can summer learning be fun, it can be free as well. Check out:

• How to Make a Difference in Your Child’s Education — In the tri-state New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area, McDonald’s restaurant owners have teamed up with the Partnership for Family Involvement in Education (a division of the U.S. Department of Education) to distribute this booklet to parents interested in becoming more involved in their children’s education. It features information on after-school activities, planning for college, and other resources for parents, teachers and educators. Log onto www.mcdonaldsnymetro.com for your copy, or send a request for free booklets to: The MWW Group, Attention McDonald’s A+ Parents, One Meadowlands Plaza, East Rutherford, N.J. 07073.

• Figure This! Math Challenges for Families — Funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, Figure This! was designed to help stimulate learning when kids are away from school by using real-life situations to show children how math plays a role in day-to-day life. You can get the program’s challenge books free by calling 1-877-GO-SOLVE or by logging onto www.figurethis.org. The website also includes tips for parents on sharpening their child’s math skills and becoming more involved at school.

Bridging the Summer Learning Gap

Reading, writing, arithmetic and language may not be exactly on a par with summer activities like barbecues and excursions to the beach or water park. But hey, since your kid won't be getting graded on it, they might not mind spending a few odd summer moments between hamburgers poking around in a book like Summer Bridge Activities (Rainbow Bridge Publishing, $12.95). Summer is the operative word here. This robust (but not too weighty) book is intended to give the once-over to these four core areas, enabling kids to reinforce and build on their scholastic skills during their time away from school. The seven books in the series, which extend to grade six, are about as colorful and jaunty as summer is — or should be. The K-1 book, for example, is neatly divided into three sections, giving its user a feeling of being both breathable and achievable, with academic lessons on counting and pronunciation pleasantly balanced with less traditional workbook contents like fitness fundamentals, pages for doodling, and even a Couch Potato Quiz. For kids who work their way to the end, there's even a degree. — Joe Lugara