School may be out, but Carolyn and Travis Low’s three children are still learning.
In between swimming and playing outside, there will be trips to the Fairfax County Public Library to sign up for the summer reading contest. Oldest son Tiernan, 8, will go to science day camp for two weeks. Middle child Griffin, 6, will pursue his passion — the Revolutionary War — by reading more about Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Audrey, 4, will work on many art projects and take a children’s music class.
Even preparing for a family vacation in California or a trip to the grocery store can be ways to sneak in some academics, says Mrs. Low, who lives in Reston.
“I always feel restricted by the school year because there is so much work the kids have to do,” she says. “No matter what is going on in the summer, we can find something educational. We practice writing by making shopping lists, writing letters to my mom and marking down license plates when we go on vacation.”
Keeping children at least partially involved in learning is a great way to plan the summer, says Karl Alexander, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Mr. Alexander has done extensive research into what educators call “the summer slide.”
Research by Mr. Alexander and others in the field shows that students, particularly those in the lower grades, lose several months’ worth of academic skills if they are not at least casually involved in using their minds.
“All concerned parents ought to be thinking about how to structure summer so it is well spent,” he says. “Three months is a long time for a brain to languish.”
Time well spent does not have to mean formal or expensive programs, Mr. Alexander says. There are learning opportunities at nature centers, parks, museums and libraries.
For those who want more organized classes, there are enrichment programs where children can learn about everything from dinosaur bones to math games. This is a different genre than mandated summer school, where children go when they are having trouble keeping up with grade-level work.
In the end, spending time doing something academic makes a difference, particularly for students living in poverty, Mr. Alexander says.
In families where there is not much access to books, computers and educational outings, summer vacation results in a significant gap in academic skills, he says. Mr. Alexander says these students lose about one to three months of academic skills during the summer.
“Teachers spend a good part of the fall catching up,” he says.
Mr. Alexander’s research shows that middle- and lower-income children make similar strides during the school year, but lower-income students experience cumulative summer learning losses throughout elementary school.
His research, which has been following Baltimore schoolchildren for more than two decades, shows that between fall and spring, poor children gained 57 points in reading and 49 points in math. More affluent children gained 61 points in reading and 45 points in math.
In the summer after first grade, however, the more affluent children gained 15 points in reading and nine points in math, but the less affluent children lost ground. That group lost four points in reading and five points in math. A similar pattern continued through elementary school.
The effects are particularly noticeable in the lower elementary grades, when children are just starting to lay an educational foundation.
However, middle-class students can be affected, too. Spending the vacation watching cartoons and playing video games probably won’t result in the kind of academic gains their parents want for them, says Harris Cooper, a Duke University psychology professor.
Parents and educators have made some progress in viewing summer as a chance to enrich and learn, Mr. Cooper says. One reason for the change is the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 federal law that mandates stronger accountability for schools.
“Because of No Child Left Behind, people are looking at every way possible to enhance academic achievement,” he says. “Summer used to be an academic wasteland for kids. Now it is being viewed as an opportunity.”
In Baltimore, for instance, the Johns Hopkins-sponsored Center for Summer Learning offers an intensive academic program for lower elementary school students.
The free enrichment program has been in place for 15 years and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
“In general, for kids who can’t fall back on what families will provide, the structure of a schoollike program can be very important,” Mr. Alexander says. “We also have a good bit of fun.”
For families willing and able to pay, there are plenty of academic choices as well. Many school districts offer camps and enrichment programs that are similar to school — only more fun.
In Arlington County, a popular choice is the three-week Global Village Summit, where students in kindergarten through third grade study the geography and culture of different countries.
“We try to look at how the countries are similar, rather than how they are different,” says Mitch Pascal, a social studies specialist for Arlington County Public Schools. Mr. Pascal’s daughter, Julia, a rising third-grader, will attend the program for the third time.
“We do art projects, introduce vocabulary and do a project on the computer,” he says. “Personally, I think it is great to have some sort of learning experience, but it doesn’t always have to be formal.”
Education all around
In past summers, Lisa Savage has mixed in a little schoolwork with summer fun for her sons, Matthew, 7, and Jacob, 9. Sometimes that means a page in a workbook. Other times it means a short writing assignment.
“I like to keep them on a path of doing work,” says Mrs. Savage, who lives in Herndon. “Jacob needs to do some creative writing because that has been a problem for him in the past. Matthew usually just does math because to him, that is fun.”
The Savage family will travel to France and England this summer. Mrs. Savage is looking at the trip as another chance to learn.
“I suggested to them we might want to read about France,” she says. “We got one book that is an age-appropriate one about D-Day because we are going to Normandy.”
Jacob also will work toward his Cub Scout Traveler badge by mapping a route for the family to use to get around via public transportation in London. Mrs. Savage is also planning a scavenger hunt to keep the boys interested at the Louvre in France.
Closer to home, Mrs. Low also sees educational opportunities all around. She even turns a rest-stop visit into a geology lesson when the family drives to Michigan.
“Sideling Hill, in Western Maryland, is a cutout for the road in the side of the mountain where you can see all the layers in the rocks,” she says. “No matter what, we can find something educational.”
Finding learning opportunities in the car, the back yard or the supermarket can be the key to having a low-pressure summer that results in a student being ready to pick up where he left off when school starts again, says Tony Harduar, principal of Central Elementary School in Ferndale, Wash., and the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Mr. Harduar says parents should pay particular attention to anything involving numbers.
“Kids are reading all around them,” he says. “They lose much more in the way of math. Spend a few minutes reviewing with them. Show them the importance of math in life. A few minutes can pay big dividends. You can show them math just by living life.”
Some of Mr. Harduar’s tips: Take children to the supermarket and ask them what a few items added together will cost, or have them total up, pay the bill and get correct change in a restaurant.
Attending sporting events and reading the sports pages are other great ways to work in some math, he says.
“Explain batting averages and have them figure out what the chances are that the guy at bat is going to get a hit,” Mr. Harduar says. “In the summer, you don’t need workbooks or textbooks. Just make it fun.”
Summer fun,fall payoff
Learning opportunities are all around in the summertime. Here a few ideas:
Consider summer school.
Summer school is not just for children who are falling behind academically. There are many enrichment programs in which children can pursue interests such as science, art, drama or computers.
While some programs can be costly, plenty are offered through local school districts and parks and recreation departments that are more reasonable.
Look for academic activities in your community. Almost every library has a summer reading club or contest. Museums, zoos and nature centers often have one-time workshops.
Plan a summer trip with an educational theme.
Once you have decided where you will be going, get books on the history and geography of the area. Study maps and plan routes.
Make lists of places to see; these can range from the obviously educational (such as a national park or monument) to the lesser-known (such as a historical marker or natural oddity).
Read a book — then visit a historical site.
Many books take readers to a different place and time. Two to try: The Magic Tree House series and the American Diary series. These books take place in different times in history. Many sites (such as Civil War battlefields or the Atlantic Ocean) are close enough to visit afterward.
Keep a travel journal.
A fun way to make handwriting progress is to give each child a trip journal. Have the children write down where they went and what they did, ate and saw on each day of the trip. They also can illustrate their journals with drawings.
Talk to next year’s teachers ahead of time. Find out what is planned for the next grade. For instance, will the class be learning about the Civil War? If so, plan a day trip to Gettysburg or Bull Run.
Ask for book suggestions and get a jump on reading for fall. Older grades usually have a required summer reading list.
Help children find time to read.
Summer camp, sports and just lazing around are all fun things to do in the summer, but carving out time in the schedule to read will help them stay sharp. Remember, however, to keep the rules relaxed. Don’t mandate the amount of minutes children must read before moving on to other activities.
Keep math in mind.
Some educators say students lose the most in math skills over the summer. Work multiplication, division and other emerging grade school concepts into everyday life to keep children sharp.
Read a book, then see the movie.
The recent release of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is a great chance to get a youngster involved with the series.
Other classics to read and then rent are “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, and “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine.
Explore a passion.
Summer is a great time to learn about a particular subject that gets skimmed over during the school year. Grade schoolers may particularly enjoy reading and doing activities related to astronomy, history, archaeology and art.
Sources: Harris Cooper, professor of psychology, Duke University; Karl Alexander, professor of sociology, Johns Hopkins University; and Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit reading advocacy group.
“TRAVEL WISE WITH CHILDREN: 101 EDUCATIONAL TRAVEL TIPS FOR FAMILIES,” BY MARY RODGERS BUNDREN, INPRINT PUBLICATIONS, 1998. THIS BOOK OFFERS PROJECTS AND ACTIVITIES TO WORK TRAVEL DESTINATIONS INTO AN EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCE.
“PLAY AND LEARN: MORE THAN 300 ENGAGING AND EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES FROM BIRTH THROUGH AGE 8,” BY SALLY LEE, KAREN WHITE AND MARGE KENNEDY, ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2000. THIS BOOK IS FULL OF IDEAS FOR PRESCHOOL AND EARLY GRADE SCHOOL PROJECTS.
“101 FRESH & FUN CRITICAL THINKING ACTIVITIES,” BY LAURIE E. ROZAKIS, SCHOLASTIC, 1999. THIS BOOK, GEARED FOR CHILDREN IN GRADES 1 TO 3, HAS TEACHING TIPS TO KEEP STUDENTS’ CRITICAL-THINKING SKILLS SHARP.
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READING IS FUNDAMENTAL, 1825 CONNECTICUT AVE. NW, SUITE 400, WASHINGTON, DC, 20009. PHONE: 877/RIF-READ. WEB SITE: WWW.RIF.ORG. READING IS FUNDAMENTAL IS A NONPROFIT READING ADVOCACY GROUP. RIF HAS MANY TIPS ON KEEPING CHILDREN READING AND LEARNING IN THE SUMMER. IT ALSO SPONSORS READING CLUBS AND CONTESTS.
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OUR KIDS (WWW.OUR-KIDS.COM), A SITE FOUNDED BY A METRO-AREA MOTHER OF TWO, HAS INFORMATION ABOUT FREE AND EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES IN THE AREA.
THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS (WWW.AFT.ORG/CALENDAR) HAS A SUMMER LEARNING CALENDAR WITH IDEAS AND IS A RESOURCE FOR LEARNING ACTIVITIES FOR CHILDREN AGES 6 TO 12.