05/27/2014 05:28 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Preparing Kids for Summer

Summer is right around the corner, and I feel the need to usher the season a speeding ticket for arriving so quickly! At this time of year, parents often ask teachers the all-too-common question, "How can we keep our children academically engaged during the summer so they don't lose ground?" As both an educator and parent, I understand how challenging it is to balance the gift of "family down time" while keeping young minds fresh and supported during extended breaks. Many families have asked if it is absolutely necessary to enroll their children in an academic or extracurricular summer program. Indeed, in some cases, summer support might be recommended by your child's teacher, as a critical bridge builder to the next school year. My two children certainly fall into this category, and we have fully supported their teachers' recommendations. We trust that these educators intimately understand our children's learning needs, and we want to provide our kids with the tools they need in order to continue to meet with success. Other families select summer programs as an opportunity to provide creative social, artistic, and/or academic outlets, and those classes certainly abound. Finally, depending on parent work schedules, summer programs can also provide families with high quality enrichment activities while children are out of school and parents continue to work.

In other cases, however, summer programs are still home-based, and children are given opportunities to create their own experiences with adult supervision and engagement. If I reflect on my own childhood memories, these were some of the most memorable days! Playing outdoors with friends, reading through an entire series of Beverly Cleary books, setting up lemonade stands, organizing whiffle ball games in the neighborhood field, skateboarding down my driveway, and building shelters with scrap pieces from my father's wood pile were all summertime favorites.

As a child, I certainly didn't think of these days as "academic." As an adult, however, I can finally appreciate the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive enrichment that took place. Of course, it takes a certain amount of mathematical expertise to become a lemonade stand entrepreneur, or measure, cut, and build shelters with precision. The gross motor skills required to balance, climb, run, and swing only develop and strengthen through repeated practice. I also honed my social skills throughout the summer, as my friends and I negotiated rules of play on the field, worked together to determine the price of lemonade sales, and organized teams for hide and seek. Those opportunities surrounded me as a child, and I'm afraid they are slowly disappearing from the world our own children now experience.

This summer, may I encourage you to create an opening for your children to experience organic enrichment, realizing that most of our best summer learning opportunities come with little to no cost. So whether parents are looking for home-based activities to combine with a summer school experience, or simply need ideas to spark that creative energy, I am providing my list of ideas to get you started and keep your children school-ready all year round!

READ, READ, READ! This will always be my first and favorite recommendation. Make sure your children have ample opportunities to get completely and deeply lost in books this summer, through independent and shared reading, or a family read aloud. Children are never too old to have a parent read to them in my opinion!

Cultivate the Artist Find unconventional ways to allow your child to express themselves through art this summer. For example, try hanging an old sheet on a clothesline, fill squirt guns with washable tempera paint, and let your child "squirt" a picture and share their creation with you. Van Gogh would surely approve!

Find your Inner Einstein There are several books and online resources for parents who are looking for ways to nurture their budding scientist. A simple but fun idea is to collect toilet paper or paper towel tubes in order to make really long tubes. Connect the sections with duct tape, and experiment with different inclines and slopes. Race with different sizes and weights of balls to predict which size or weight will win.

Family Fun Take advantage of concerts, museum events, park/beach clean ups, and movies in the park or local shopping centers. Free family events are often listed in your local newspaper or libraries, and are a great way to bring everyone together to do something everyone enjoys.

Calendar Fun Buy a family calendar and have your child keep track of the days/weeks/months until school begins. Integrate fun trivia at dinner (i.e. "How many weeks until the 4th of July?") Allow family members to designate and schedule special family days (i.e. kids in charge of making dinner, ice cream outing, community service day) with stickers.

Vacation Extensions As you do your vacation planning, work in a few experiences that will teach something your child can share with others. For example, if you're going to be driving on the Mainland, you can check out books from the library on the specific states of interest, and document various information and observations during your trip.

Dear Diary It's never too early to introduce journaling with young children. I have fond memories of my son and his paper-filled binder from two summers ago. At five years old, he wasn't a fluent reader or writer, yet he was immensely proud of his personal journal. I recall his vested interest in writing, sketching, and drawing that long summer. By the close of the season, his writing was illegible to a grownup's eyes, but more valuable than the Hope Diamond, if you asked him. He still visits that journal from time to time, and I now realize that summer was an important stepping stone towards his language development.

Let It Be In the words of the Beatles, I would finally like to urge families to let go this summer and just "be." Just imagine a day (or a week) with no agenda! You could sleep in, and no one would have sports practice, music lessons, summer school, or dance class (I'm salivating now). Your family actually might spend a few hours playing board games, taking a long hike, completing a puzzle, exploring a new museum, or going grocery shopping together to prepare a shared family dinner! I vow to make a concerted effort to do more of this over the next few months, and invite you to join me in this pledge. Have fun!