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Keeping summer brain drain at bay

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  May 26, 2010 10:59 AM

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My youngest kids are young enough that summer is merely an extension of their regular preschool experience, albeit with more sunscreen, field trips, and water play. But older kids who deal with academic testing and boatloads of homework during the school year are likely to be looking forward to a summer of, if not laziness and leisure, at least a little downtime.

And that's fine -- they've earned it. But can you give kids their downtime without giving in to the dreaded summer slide?

Given the way kids are scheduled (or overscheduled) these days, it may seem odd to worry about brain drain. But according to the National Summer Learning Association, when kids take an absolute break from education during the summer months -- whether by circumstance or by design -- they lose about two months worth of grade-level equivalency in math skills, and low-income students lose more than two months worth of reading achievement (middle-class students ususally make slight gains). "More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities," the National Summer Learning Association points out.

"Motivating children to read throughout the summer is essential to building lifelong readers," says Carol H. Rasco, president and CEO of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation’s largest children’s literacy nonprofit. "And reading is the doorway to all other learning."

RIF suggests that parents combine reading with other activities. A trip to a zoo or farm begin with a stop at the library for a book about animals; a night at the big game can follow a day reading the biography of your child’s favorite athlete. You don’t have to set specific reading requirements, just encourage reading as often as possible.

All reading doesn’t have to be book reading. Blogs, children’s magazines, and eBooks can also foster a love of reading. "A lot of what children -- and adults -- read might not be considered ‘quality’ reading, but reading should be fun," Dr. Janet Hilbun, assistant professor of library and information sciences in the University of North Texas College of Information, points out. "Don’t forget about nonfiction, graphic novels, audio books, magazines, and picture books. There are some great picture books for older readers and many picture books have a higher reading level than chapter books."

As far as math and computational skills are concerned, you don't have to resort to tedious worksheets or enroll your kids in summer school in order to keep their minds sharp. There are plenty of free educational websites out there that are so much fun kids won't even realize they're learning. (My favorite: Exploratorium, the web version of Dr. Frank Oppenheimer's science museum, which is housed inside San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Online, it spans more 18,000 web pages and hundreds of scientific subjects -- a kid could get (wonderfully) lost without every having to leave her desk.)

Do you remember focusing on academics during your own summer vacations? I admit: I don't. But I've always been a bookworm, and I still had to practice my violin during the summer -- music education can foster math skills, among other things. So maybe my parents were using Vivaldi to stop the summer slide...

Are you concerned about brain drain this summer?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.

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7 comments so far...
  1. As an elementary mathematics specialist, I think there is an even better way for parents to help their children reinforce math skills over the summer - play math games with your children.

    There is no doubt in my mind that, as the Internet continues to play a larger role in education, a growing number of online sites will host free math games, most of which are challenging, exciting, fun, and age-appropriate. That’s all well and good.

    But above all else, children crave time spent with their parents. Because learning is a social process, children learn best through fun games and activities that involve interaction with other people.

    They will have fun while learning, and they will remember those times with greater fondness than the times they spent playing the educational computer game.

    Posted by Bonnie Adama May 26, 10 06:32 PM
  1. Nope. Never have been. The kids do plenty of reading, and since they are at camps every weekday, I'm sure that some of the activities wind up in some way being academically enriching. Plus, most of the websites they are allowed to visit have some sort of educational value in some way.

    Posted by akmom May 27, 10 06:44 AM
  1. Here's a fun, educational and entertaining site for kids and parents ... ... and they have a wonderful Summer Fun guide with lots of fun crafts and outdoor activities!

    Posted by Share May 27, 10 07:03 AM
  1. I kind of don't see the big deal about so called "brain drain". So, you have to review some stuff in the beginning of the year. I'd think that would happen regardless.

    I don't understand people's obsession about having every single thing kids do be some sort of educational experience. Summer is for lying on your back and looking at clouds, walking barefoot in the mud, making friendship bracelets, swimming, etc. I know some activities need to be organized during the summer--my kids went to camp so we could work, but does everything have to be academic? Loosen up, people.

    The way to stop "brain drain" is the have a shorter summer vacation, 8 weeks in plenty of vacation. But teachers are very resistant to that (and I have a great deal of respect for teachers and what they are up against, but I think this is the one thing they really should give in on.

    Posted by ash May 28, 10 07:48 AM
  1. I think just encouraging your kids to read every day, and reading to them as well, is huge. For years we have been participating in our local library program, and my boys really look forward to it. We also make lots of trips to Barnes and Noble and are sure to take books with us any time we are in the car. There are plenty of fun math games out there as well.

    Ash commented that, "summer is for lying on your back looking at clouds, walking barefoot in the mud...", this is true, but there's no reason you can't fit in some reading and math games in the middle of it all, particularly if you make it fun. It has never seemed like "work" to my kids, because to them it's just another regular activity that we do together.

    Also, I'll bet the kids that are doing those fun things are probably fine. I would guess the "brain drain" issue is more of a problem with the kids that spend hours of their time watching tv and playing video games. To make matters worse, those are probably the kids who had a harder time with the work during the school year, which makes them much more likely to lose a lot of the skills that were difficult for them in the first place.

    Posted by mom2boys May 28, 10 12:25 PM
  1. I really enjoy creating a "summer school with Mom" plan with my son, who is finishing first grade. His school gives a summer math workbook and a reading list with related projects. This gives us a base to start. I add some of my own creative stuff based on my observances of where I think he might need a little boost - and what might be fun that we don't have time for during the school year.

    This year I have noticed that he struggles with the weekly task of putting his spelling words into sentences. So I'm working on a (MUCH MORE FUN AND SILLY) strategy to develop the skill of writing creative sentences. I have also chosen a few books of my own that he and I can read together - they'll be a challenge for him, so he will need guidance. We are also going to make a vacation scrapbook/journal with photos, souvenirs, and lots of writing to fill it in.

    We're a family of readers regardless and I wouldn't need to do any of this to keep my son reading. He's the kind of kid who walks down the stairs with his nose in a book. But I don't think you'll hear him complain about our "school hour." I make sure we do something different every day. Sometimes we work on a tricky puzzle while we talk about a book. Sometimes we sort through digital pictures on iphoto to decide which ones we'll print for the scrapbook, or we might sort through printed photos to put them in chronological order before we start pasting them in.

    Unstructured time is great...and we are grateful to have more of it in the summer. But we also love our "academic" projects. If he ever seems frustrated, annoyed, or not into it, we put it aside and switch gears. And maybe we won't do anything for a few days after that. But I consider myself to be my son's first teacher, and I look forward to this time in the summer more than anything!

    Posted by RH June 1, 10 08:52 AM
  1. Kids need to go outside during the summer and get engaged in a wide variety of learning activities. Here are my tips:

    Alexis Avila
    Prepped & Polished

    Posted by Alexis Avila June 28, 10 04:15 PM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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