THE BLOG
07/15/2014 01:36 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Don't Fight Summer Fun -- Make It Educational

School-aged children are in the midst of summer vacation, a time to play outside and take a break from homework; or is it? Some youth will go off to summer camps, or spend their free time exploring museums and nature; however, others will find themselves without important learning opportunities. Inevitably, a lack of exposure to learning opportunities from one school year to the next leads to summer learning loss.

Research from the National Summer Learning Association shows students can lose two to three months of learning over the summer break, requiring teachers to spend more time at the beginning of the new school year revisiting topics, instead of moving ahead. This summer, learning loss, or "summer slide," is an even bigger problem for families that can't afford summer camps or other informal educational experiences during the summer. Every fall, elementary school teachers are faced with the impossible task of balancing the two ends of the summer learning spectrum between low-income and affluent students. By middle school, affluent students simply enter advanced classes, further exacerbating a rich-poor divide in educational attainment that has little to do with innate intelligence and everything to do with educational opportunity.

The hardest hit curriculum area for summer learning loss is mathematics. Researchers have also seen a backward slide in reading and spelling abilities from those students who come from low-income households. Whereas their middle class counterparts either maintain their abilities or show slight gains in these subject areas. Reading and spelling skills are more likely to be maintained over summer break because parents and families know which activities their children should be doing. Often, they are able to do these activities, such as reading, with their kids. Knowing which activities are best to engage youngsters in math can be more difficult. However, more options are becoming available to help parents and families.

Having access to quality summer programming plays a role in minimizing the achievement gap to set all children on the path to college and career success. For example, Wheelock College and Massachusetts General Hospital's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Summer Camp offered each June for rising 10th grade public school students from the Greater Boston area introduces students to STEM concepts through a combination of classroom experiments and field experiences at Boston-area companies. During the camp's culminating celebration, students networked with Wheelock faculty and staff. They successfully articulated their future career goals and how they planned to achieve these goals.

The first step to combating summer learning loss is to shift our thinking from the idealistic view of what a summer vacation is supposed to be--rest and relaxation--to what it could be--an opportunity for growth. Exposing children, especially in their elementary years, to a multitude of activities that give them the opportunity to experience something new such as visiting a museum, sporting lessons, and regular visits to the library enhances brainpower. To be even more effective, these activities can be paired with structured programs. Individualized programs, parent engagement, and the freedom to explore new areas have all shown to be an effective way to maintain the knowledge developed over the school year.

Summer learning doesn't have to be costly; there is a plethora of free activities to use in the home. For example, this year, educators at Wheelock College are hoping to combat summer learning loss with a first-of-its-kind web application to engage families with elementary-age students in STEM activities. Families have limited time to search online for these types of activities and even when they are able to find it, the information is not structured for parent/child engagement. This app makes STEM activities for families and students readily accessible. The web application has shown very positive results in pilot tests, including increasing a child's interest in engineering, as well as parents' comfort level discussing the topic. The application is available here.

Kids deserve time off, but that doesn't mean learning should fall by the wayside. Parents today have more options than ever to keep kids learning and having fun throughout the summer months.

Here are several more of my favorite, free resources to help families lessen the summer slide:

Science Buddies Science Fair Project Ideas
Reading Tips to Go
Khan Academy
National Summer Learning Association
National Science Teachers Association
For younger kids: TRUCE - Play guides by season

Complacence with summer slide is the status quo, and it's dangerous. Why not confront a problem that disproportionately disadvantages poor families and is so easily fixed. These young students' brain development shouldn't stop every summer--and their summer learning shouldn't be boring, difficult or expensive. Families armed with these creative ideas and engaging programs can see their children enjoying educational progress this summer, instead of falling behind.

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