You are here

Stop Summer Learning Loss


Like many moms, I can't help thinking of summer in terms of fun with my family. I dream all winter about lazy days in the backyard and nights free of homework and projects. I want to see my girls blow bubbles and draw with chalk on the sidewalk. Which is why all the anecdotal and statistical information on what happens to kids academically over the break can seem so depressing. Virtually all kids will lose some hard-won math knowledge, and many will experience setbacks in reading. As a result, teachers will start the next school year reteaching the same material in the fall for a month or more. So how can summer-loving families reconcile these two seemingly separate camps—summer as fun and summer as academics? Here's how to get started.

In the Middle of Summer, Plan for Fall

Talk to your child's upcoming teacher about the curriculum ahead, recommends Harris Cooper, Ph.D., chair of the psychology and neuroscience department at Duke University, who has done extensive research on the summer academic slide. “If kids have heard the words they are going to hear or have some prior knowledge about the subject waiting in their brains, they will be more likely to make a lasting link,” explains Judy Willis, M.D., a neurologist turned schoolteacher. Without this early introduction, it can take longer for the knowledge to stick.

Look for an astronomy program at a museum if you know stars are on the upcoming school-year schedule, go out to dinner at an ethnic restaurant if your child will be learning a foreign language, or plan a mini-vacation around a subject he'll be studying—say a trip to Boston if your kid will be tackling the Revolutionary War. Fractions on deck? Cook together and divide the servings. You can even introduce the concept of right angles and geometry by building something or just playing with blocks.

Don't Underestimate Fun and Games

Having fun is not the opposite of learning things. In fact, the two are intricately connected in the brain. “Learning is more memorable when the mood is positive,” emphasizes Dr. Willis. Kids who are laughing and smiling are more likely to be learning in ways that last. That can mean playing charades using characters from books. Many popular board games reinforce language or math (think Monopoly, Battleship, Clue, Scrabble, Boggle, chess), as well as skills like making predictions, seeing patterns and using logic. You can also practice spelling and cursive with chalk and play word games in the car. Physical activities like a game of tag or a walk in the woods are also proven brain boosters.

Teach Balance

One of the biggest concerns for parents is the digital beast consuming ten-plus hours a day of our children's lives during the school year, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But educators say it isn't just the technology that is the problem; it's how it's used. Milton Chen, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the George Lucas Educational Foundation ( encourages families to make a strategic plan for how technology will fit into each day. This might mean screen-free hours during certain time periods or a basket where cell phones or game devices are dropped (in the “off” position) during meals or at bedtime. In adopting these approaches, parents will do more than simply diversify their children's activities; they'll be teaching them how to strategize to make the best use of their time.

Make It Relevant

The biggest question of the school year—“Why is this important?”—can best be answered during the summer. If your child can finally understand the value of computation when he makes change at the store or calculates distance on a map, he'll have learned a far more meaningful and lasting mathematical lesson than simply memorizing his fours.

Encourage your child's interest in sports statistics as a way of collecting data and analyzing it, and don't shy away from having a kid use a calculator to do it. “Real-life mathematicians and scientists use calculators regularly,” Chen notes.

Keep It Personal

As the parent, you are in the best position to understand what gaps are present in your child's learning. Your interest and participation in your child's reading or math activities can also make a real difference in the summer losses in these areas. “You don't want to hand your kid a printed math worksheet and walk away,” says Matthew Boulay, interim CEO of the National Center for Summer Learning. “Instead, write down a math problem on a piece of paper and give it to your child to solve, and then have your child do the same for you.” This personal approach, like cuddling with your child while you're reading, enhances learning in real ways. “The hidden secret about reading is that it's also about the relationship,” Chen points out. “It's about sharing something with your child—and the same can be true of doing math together.”

It is the conversations you have with your children as you all learn that are perhaps most important. “Listen to what they talk about, the things they say during the odd moments—those are the teachable moments, when they are curious and ready to learn,” says Dr. Willis. When Dave Neal, a fifth-grade teacher in Big Sky, MT, evaluates each new crop of students in the fall, he says he sees the value of this kind of summer educational investment. “I can always tell the difference in students who have had thought-provoking conversations and spent time with their parents during the summer.”

  • Lesson #1: If science makes you think of dreary formulas and dusty beakers, think again! Kids can have crazy fun making things happen—blowing up soda volcanoes, mixing up goop—while learning about the natural world.
  • Lesson #2: Just being outside near things green and growing can improve attention span, creativity, mood, even IQ!
  • Lesson #3: You can toss the worksheets and flash cards: Summer learning is all about play.
  • Lesson #4: Kids' brains absorb more information when they're having fun. Read on for 12 smart summer activities!

Build Skills through games

Ring Around the World

Look for an old tree stump with rings. Count them (use a magnifying glass if necessary), then calculate back to when the tree was the age of your child. Look up what was happening in the world at that time.

Builds skills in:

Science, History

Family Affairs

Interview relatives about family history, then plot dates on a timeline of world history printed from the Internet. What was happening when your relatives first came to the U.S., got married, had kids, and so forth?

Builds skills in:

History, Language Arts

Monlight Magic

Head outside on different nights to determine how much you can see by the light of the moon. Draw a chart of its different shapes, from full to a tiny crescent, and note what you can see without the need for a flashlight

Builds skills in:

Math, Science

Get in Shape

Create a “shape-scape.” Draw a picture of nature or a neighborhood, then incorporate shapes into it—a tree's overarching shape may be a triangle, a lake an oval, a building a rectangle.

Builds skills in: 

Math, Art

The Play's the Thing

An important reading-comprehension skill is being able to retell a story. To this end, after your child finishes a book he's read with you or alone, encourage him to put on a play that tells the story. Volunteer to take a part, and let your child direct.

Builds skills in:

Language Arts

Evaporation Detectives 

Circle puddles on the cement with chalk after a storm, then check them throughout the day. Your child will see the puddles shrink before his eyes—a vivid image of how the water cycle works.

Builds skills in:


Bowling For Fractions 

Draw a line with chalk on the sidewalk. Measure out 1/4, 1/2, 1/6 and so forth—whatever fractions your child might reasonably know. Now place boxes or plastic bottles (whatever you can come up with that is easily knocked over) on the marks. The players name the fraction they are going to hit and then roll their ball for the pin they think sits on that fraction. Players get points for the correct fraction—and the hit.

Builds skills in:


Bird's-Eye Viewing

Head out on a hunt for birds' nests in your neighborhood. Besides trees, look up near the roofs and corners of buildings, or below porches or decks. What kind of materials did the birds use? Look for twigs, paper towels, newspaper, string and mud.

Builds skills in: 


Observation Scavenger Hunt

Before your next trip to the park or walk around the block, plan a scavenger hunt that requires specific observations. For example: Find a leaf that has been nibbled by an insect, a plant that has seeds you can pick, a flower that makes it easy for a bee to get the nectar (a flat face) or one that makes it more difficult (a tulip-shaped bloom).

Builds skills in: 

Science, Language Arts

Measure Up! 

Get out a set (or two) of measuring cups and spoons and bake a cake or some cookies to give your kids a clear picture of how many thirds make one cup, how many tablespoons fit in a quarter cup, and so on. Have a contest to see which spoon or measuring tool will fill a cup faster—but not make it overflow.

Builds skills in:


Speed Counting 

Dump out a jar of colorful beads, buttons or candies, then race to sort and count them. This activity introduces the concept of multiplication (for instance, four groups of five things is the same as 4 × 5).

Builds skills in:


Inch by Inch 

Bring a measuring tape on a walk and see who can find the tree with the biggest circumference, the sunflower with the largest face, the most impressive rock.

Builds skills in: