Take the Summer Slide into Fun and Learning

School’s out. That big whooshing sound you hear? That’s the collective exhale of parents everywhere, who were, at the end, hanging on by their fingernails.

Now, it’s summertime, and the living is, if not exactly easy, easier. No more nightly backpack excavating, reviewing homework, and being the Big Bad Bedtime Enforcer. But summer brings its own set of parental concerns—not the least of which is the summer slide.

The summer slide is real. For decades, researchers have been studying this phenomenon of kids losing academic ground over the span of summer vacation. According to the National Summer Learning Association, kids can lose 1–3 months of learning over summer break. Kids, across the board, lose about two months’ worth of math skills. Loss of reading skills is less prevalent, because reading is more embedded in kids’ day-to-day lives, but many children do experience significant loss in reading as well as spelling. The extent of the loss is greater in disadvantaged children and children in higher grades.

What’s a parent to do? Plan a summer filled with “homework,” flash cards, prescribed reading lists, and summer school?

Well, you might want to do some of these things, particularly if your child needs to catch up. But if you, like me, believe that a less structured, happy, and carefree summer break is not only fun for kids but can also offer academic growth, you might approach the challenge differently. With a little planning and a lot of intention, we can provide kids with both the needed break from routine and the necessary engagement to combat the summer slide.

The key is building on these two fundamental ideas:

  1. Give kids a say. The more you persist in pushing something your kids really don’t want to do, the more they will resist. Instead, urge them to get their curiosity on and make a “summer learning bucket list.” You might find that they have well-thought-out answers to the question, “What would you like to learn or explore this summer?”

  2. Shoot for activity-based learning. Remember: One of the best ways kids learn is through play and exploration.

Here are just a few ways to keep your kids thinking all summer:

  • Think of the outdoors as a classroom. A session at camp, if it’s in your family budget, can expose your child to all kinds of new ideas and experiences. But you can do many camp-like activities at home too. Go on scavenger hunts, looking for various bugs, birds, or plants. Keep a nature journal of the things you see and do. Conduct science experiments that are too messy for indoors. Give writing prompts about nature, or try a nature-themed art project. Plan a picnic after dark to catch, study, and release fireflies. Grab the binoculars (easier to use than telescopes with young kids) and do some stargazing. Follow up by reading together books about the subjects you explore. Summer is a great time to build upon an emerging interest, and most children are intrigued by some aspect of nature or science.   

  • Schedule some family travel. Even a day trip can be enriching for children.  Let your kids participate in the planning—researching your destination and planning your route. It’s a chance to learn map skills—and practice their math skills—as they calculate distance traveled. While in the car, tune in an educational children’s podcast the whole family can enjoy, like Highlights Hangout. An audio experience can be a nice alternative to screen time.

  • “Loiter” at the library (really, it’s OK). Sign up for your local library’s summer reading program, and allow your kids to browse the shelves and choose their own books. Studies show that reading as few as 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a positive impact similar to that of summer-school enrollment.  

  • Get your game on! Dig out the board games you never have time to play during the school year. Some of them are great at giving kids practice at doing math: Monopoly, Connect Four, Ticket to Ride, and Rush Hour. A yard game such as cornhole requires on-the-spot addition. Even hopscotch helps reinforce math skills. Word games such as Boggle can help with spelling.

  • Puzzle it out. Keep a supply of puzzle and activity books in the kids’ sight line and within easy reach—and download a few good puzzle apps for their tablets. Mazes, logic puzzles, word, and math puzzles—beautifully illustrated and made to look like the fun they are—reinforce a myriad of essential skills. They also help kids learn concentration, persistence, and multiple ways of solving a problem—all crucial skills for growth mindsets and school success.

Summer is a great time for discovery and exploration, and it’s an easy setup. This year, take the summer slide into family fun and learning—and create a softer landing for your child when school begins next fall.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....