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16 Fun Brain-Boosting Games

Like many parents, I'm full of good intentions during those first school-free days of June. Mindful of the well-documented learning losses that occur over the summer in math and reading, I've been known to stock up on spelling books and flash cards, and even post a vocabulary word or two in the kitchen.

But it isn't long before my grand ideas of academic achievement are forgotten along with the flash cards now buried under the damp swimsuits. My daughters simply don't want to go to school during the summer, and, frankly, neither do I.

So we play games instead. We take walks and make things, we read books together in the hammock. It isn't school, and an increasing amount of research says that's more than okay. It turns out that there are a whole lot of nontraditionally academic approaches that can engage your child's brain in the summer equally as well as, and often better than, any workbook. So don't worry if school's around the corner: Chances are your child has already been doing a lot of learning -- and here are more easy activities you can do while summer's still in swing:

School-Year Habit: Study For a Science Test
Summer Substitute: Do Science!

We've heard about American kids' needing more exposure to the sciences, and if that makes you think of dreary formulas and dusty beakers, think again. There isn't much that's more fun than science: Kids can make crazy things happen while learning about cause and effect, the natural world, and lots more.

Take the science-fair volcano to the next level. You have to sacrifice a two-liter bottle of diet soda for this one (it's less sticky than regular soda, so easier to clean up), but it'll be worth it. Open the soda on the driveway or in the yard. Now, as quickly as possible (it helps to use a funnel; you can make one out of paper), drop an entire roll of Mentos candies into the bottle and run: The soda will explode from the bottle, making a huge geyser. So cool!

Conjure up some goop. Put two cups of cornstarch in a bowl and slowly add water (you'll need about a quarter cup). Mix until a soft clay forms. Your kids will find it irresistible as the mixture changes from hard to soft to gooey, then to a ball they can hold in their hands. Add food coloring for extra fun.

Create some botanical art. Draw a landscape line on a piece of sky-blue card stock or construction paper and then head out with it and a glue stick to collect items to fill in: Pick up leaves to glue on the trees, grass to stick on the ground, petals to dot the grass with color. Voila! A three-dimensional masterpiece and a lesson in nature.

Turn your kitchen into a lab. Making lemonade from lemons and simple syrup (sugar dissolved in boiling water) is a great lesson in proportions and problem solving (more lemon juice? more water?), while experimenting with yeast breads can demonstrate a chemical reaction.

Sit around and watch ice melt. Hand everyone an equal-size cube to hold, put on a plate, leave on the grass. Whose will become a puddle first?

School-Year Habit: Memorize your Math Facts
Summer Substitute: Play a Board Game

Math skills falter in summertime because -- aside from practicing the times tables -- it can seem as if there's no natural way to keep them fresh. But many popular strategy games (like chess, checkers, Monopoly, Battleship, Clue, and more) involve counting and subtracting, and working with money, as well as making predictions, seeing patterns, following rules, and using logic. In other words: math.

Move the games out of the closet and into a central, visible location (kitchen table, living room basket), and set up a time (say, after dinner) for regular play. On particularly beautiful days, take the whole setup outside to the porch, the picnic table -- even a piece of sturdy cardboard on the grass in a park.

Invest in a Scrabble set, rather than a spelling or math workbook. This classic game reinforces both skills as you spell words and count up points -- even multiplying the numbers when you land on the right space. To even the playing field with younger players (under 10) and get them excited about the game, let them use a dictionary and a calculator. Boggle's a good choice, too, for the patterns and connections your child will see in the grid of letters.

Rejuvenate the jigsaw. This old-fashioned pastime develops critical spatial and pattern-recognition skills and manual dexterity. Start with 100- to 300-piece puzzles for a 7-year-old; see how she does and adjust your next purchase accordingly!

Our family's secret weapon for puzzle protection and transportation: a cardboard trifold display board -- the kind you'll find at any office-supply store for about $5. The large center section gives you a flat surface for working on the puzzle (and allows you to easily carry it from place to place) -- even in the yard -- while the side flaps fold over to keep all the pieces together. If your kids aren't inspired to complete a picture -- or are crazy for puzzling and want more -- consider two great games that use the puzzle skills, but in a competitive format: Blokus and Tantrix. Both sharpen geometric and strategic thinking.

School-Year Habit: Read for 30 minutes a night
Summer Substitute: Read whenever you want

Even when your child can read on his own, listening to books read aloud radically improves vocabulary, attention span, and love of literature by exposing him to higher-level books than he could comfortably manage on his own. It's usually not until eighth grade that a child's reading level equals his listening level, says Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Think outside the book-and-bed box. Reading time can be at breakfast, in the afternoon, whenever works for your schedule. Then get creative. Cozy up under the shade of a tree, in a backyard tent, on the porch after dinner, poolside during a swim break.
Keep fidgety kids busy while they listen with a hunk of clay, a piece of knitting, or a coloring book.
Choose a book that you remember reading as a child or that interests you as well.
Let your child draw what she's hearing as you read. She can illustrate a character or a place in the book.
Listen to an audiobook. These are available at public libraries or bookstores, or you can download them on services like, where you can listen to samples before buying.

School-Year Habit: Sit at your desk
Summer Substitute: Run around

Experts say that exercise can boost thinking skills. Plus, research suggests that simply being outside near something green and growing can improve attention span, creativity, mood -- even IQ. So round up a posse of kids and play these classics with zero guilt: They're practically like homework.

Kick the Can Whoever is "It" stands next to a soda can (taped up at the top, with a few pebbles inside), shuts his eyes, and counts to 100. All other players run and hide. "It" then goes off in search of the hiding players. If he finds someone, he can tag her and put her in "jail." Meanwhile, players try to run from their hiding spots to kick the can: If they make it without being tagged, they're safe (and get to be "It" next time). If not, they're out.

Capture the Flag Define a large playing area with a center line and a jail area. A varied geography (including trees) is helpful. Create two teams, and place a bandanna at the far line of each team's territory. To play, teams try to sneak over the center line and steal the other team's flag without getting caught. Caught players stay in the other team's jail until they are rescued by being tagged by a teammate. The game's up when one team has both flags on its side of the dividing line.

Summer Olympics Train for, and then host, a family Olympics. Include these events, or make up your own: Yo-Yo, Jump Rope, Rock Skip, Hula-Hoop, and Water-Balloon Toss. Elaborate medal ceremony optional.

Barbara Rowley is a Parenting contributing editor.