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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.