As summer approaches, your kids eagerly await endless weeks of freedom and frivolity. And while you’re looking forward to family fun, you also hope to keep your kids’ brains engaged and stimulated over the summer.

Those two goals, however, needn’t be mutually exclusive. Summer affords many opportunities—both for leisure and learning—in ways both parents and children can enjoy. And experts agree that keeping kids’ academic skills sharp over the summer is a benefit in the long run.

“What we know from [more than 100 years of] research…is that kids who don’t engage in some educational experience in summer tend to fall behind,” says Jennifer Brady, vice president of member services and program quality for the National Summer Learning Association. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Brady cites research that has shown that kids lose up to two months of grade level equivalency in math skills over the summer and that lower-income students tend to lose even more than that in reading achievement. “You don’t see professional athletes or musicians taking the off-season ‘off,’ ” she says. They are always refining their skills; so, too, should students.

Here are a few ideas to help you work some learning into your child’s summer schedule.

Start With the School

Check with your child’s school to see whether it offers any summer programs, Brady suggests. Talk with a teacher from the next grade level to find out whether there is a recommended book your child could read or an activity she could do to prepare for fall. “Find out the skills they will learn the next year so kids can practice in summer,” Brady says.

To help her oldest child prepare for preK, Stacy Schuster of Richfield, Wis., visited the school website to look at the fall curriculum and used it to plan summer activities. “We started working on her address and phone number, for example,” she says.

Nancy Laserstein, a special education teacher in the Menomonee Falls, Wis., school district, says that family activities and trips can provide excellent learning opportunities. One of her students participates in summer athletic events across the state. His family plans educational side trips along the way, such as stopping at historical markers or visiting state parks. “The young person isn’t even aware that the stuff they’re taking in is actually educational,” Laserstein says.

Look to the Library

Ask about summer reading programs at your local library. “Summer reading programs are one of the universal offerings of libraries, whether they are in big cities or rural areas,” says Marge Loch-Wouters, coordinator of youth services at the La Crosse (Wis.) Public Library.

“Kids who aren’t doing some reading really do lose literacy skills,” she says. “Sometimes for kids who are more at risk, they really start school behind where they left school, so there’s this catch-up that teachers have to do in the fall.” Reading a little bit each day—including comic books or the newspaper—can be helpful.

Summer reading programs are often free, plus they frequently offer incentives for kids, such as small prizes or free event tickets. They also give kids time to socialize with each other. “A lot of them are reading because it’s fun for them and they feel like they’re part of a club,” Loch-Wouters says. “Kids love to talk to each other about what they’re excited about.”

Consider Camps

Camps are like classrooms without walls, says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. “I think we feel like fun is considered frivolous, but play is considered learning for children.”

During the school year, parents and kids often feel pressure to succeed academically. Summer camps can offer a more social environment for children who simply need a different way to learn, Smith says. “You get to make friends; you get to try new skills and be successful.”

In addition to general summer camps where kids can learn sports and outdoor skills, many specialty camps focus on language, math, science, or the arts. “They really [span] the developmental spectrum,” she says.

Merge Family Fun With Learning

Schuster, a school counselor with Menomonee Falls (Wis.) High School, takes a more laid-back approach to summer learning. She considers trips to the zoo, beach, and museums valuable learning experiences.

While that approach works for her family, the educator in her realizes it may not be for everyone. “If remedial work is needed, the child should have an opportunity to do an enrichment activity of their choice to encourage them and allow new skills to develop along the way,” she says. “This should be done in a way that is fun and energizing and not perceived as punishment by the child.”

Brady suggests that parents incorporate learning into their regular summer activities. Some options include:

Unplug and play outside. “Seek out or organize physical activities that contribute to healthy development,” Brady advises. Turn off the TV, stash the cell phones, and hit the bike trail. Or visit a local farmers’ market for exercise, fresh air, and healthful food.

Give math meaning. Keep math skills sharp by having kids keep score at a baseball game, measure items around the house, or play pricing games at the grocery store.

Volunteer. Get the family involved in a community service project. “Cleaning up a local park or collecting supplies for an animal shelter builds compassion for others and community pride,” Brady says.

Set goals. Issue a challenge to kids. Help them learn to play tennis, make a model volcano, or take on another project in an area of special interest.

Whether summer learning takes the form of a structured program or just freewheeling family fun, each can achieve the same goal—giving children the edge they need to stay at the top of their game, during the school year and beyond.


Resources for Summer Learning

The American Camp Association offers many resources for parents on choosing a summer camp, including a planning calendar, preliminary questions to ask, and a guide to local camps, among other valuable lists.
http://www.acacamps.org

The National Summer Learning Association includes information on NSLA programs, events, and publications, as well as a helpful blog.
http://www.summerlearning.org