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Child Behavior: Preventing the summer brain drain

Have fun and beat brain drain!

Does the axiom, “use it or lose it” apply to the skills, abilities and knowledge children have obtained during their course of study throughout the school year? There is overwhelming research that would answer this question with a resounding “YES!” The reality is that almost all students experience some learning loss when they do not engage in some type of educational activity during their break from school. 

How much will be lost and in what areas will be unique to each child, but research suggests that elementary school aged children can lose up to three months of skills already mastered over a dormant summer break. 

The greatest losses children experience appear to be in mathematical computation skills, more so than in reading ability. That does not mean, however, that reading skills are exempt from reversals as well. Summer losses not only affect a child’s immediate abilities, but also effect how much he learns during the next school year.

READ MORE: Trick your kids into studying!

Research indicates that teachers can spend up to two months at the beginning of the school year re-teaching material students had mastered and have forgotten over the summer.  Another area, although not as easily measured as reading and math skills, that suffers over an idle break is learning momentum.

Kids build momentum when they’re practicing skills on a daily basis that is easily disrupted when there is no learning routine in place during the summer Although a summer of educational idleness can atrophy a child’s abilities and motivation to learn, the good news is that this “brain drain” doesn’t have to happen. 

Parents can easily help their children retain both their skill levels and their motivation to learn over the summer by doing any or all of the following:

  • Use the library.  Every area library has summer reading activities available for all ages and of course BOOKS of every size, shape, interest and reading level. I have not yet met a librarian that wouldn’t spend the time necessary to find a book that piqued a child’s interest.
  • Use the internet. There are many wonderful websites that offer reading and craft activities, puzzles, math and science problems and projects and countless web-streamed videos that offer geographic tours and videos of historic events. Although the internet is a wonderful source of potential learning experiences and activities, a child should always be monitored by a parent when they’re online.
  • Use tutors or summer school. Some children benefit by going to a formally structured summer program or having a tutor assist them in specific subjects.  Many college students and even high school students provide tutoring at very reasonable rates. 
  • Enroll in summer enrichment schools or camps. Learning is much more fun and often goes unnoticed by kids when intertwined with physical activities or games. Forensic, robotics, art, music and even sports camps, to only name a few, keep kids’ brains turning and allow them to learn without even knowing. These camp programs can be especially helpful with children who are “resistant” to academics.
  • Don’t forget math. Maintaining or enhancing math skills can be a challenging endeavor. Using sports scores and batting averages, for those kids interested in baseball or other sports, is an excellent means of practicing computational skills. Planning a shopping trip or a budget also provides a “real life” practice system.
  • Provide a structure. Whatever you do to enhance learning over the summer, provide a structure to the activities. Just as homework during the school year is best completed at a specific time, the summer activities that you provide should also follow a similar routine. Establishing a routine for learning reduces the possibility of resistance from your child toward the activity as well as maintains the momentum of learning from year to year.
  • Use everything you do with your child as a “teachable moment.” Be creative! Vacations can be used for numerous learning activities as can day trips to museums, zoos and other outings. Something as simple as a trip to the supermarket can be used to enhance learning.

READ MORE: Beat summer boredom!

Whatever you do with your children over the summer, please keep in mind that the summer is first and foremost a time of fun for children. Don’t make summer learning an arduous task that sours your child on academics. If they’re exhausted with educational activities over the summer, they’ll hate the thought of returning to school for more of the same.  Keep summer learning activities simple, interesting and fun-filled.

Paul Schwartz, Ph. D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.