How to Slow the Summer Slide and Enjoy Time With Your Kids

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School is out for the summer and kids are finding themselves with a lot more time on their hands. So far my grandchildren are having no trouble filling that time up. Last week I watched them jump in and out of the kiddy pool in our backyard, covered in watermelon and grass, before racing off to finish building a "pig pen" they'd been working diligently on all week.

As this scene demonstrates, there is obviously a lot to gain in the summer months - more time for free play, family meals, adventures outside, and time with friends.

But many take for granted that all kids experience summer months as carefree and enriching. We would be remiss not to pay attention to what can be lost in the summer months as well. It isn't just that some kids are missing out on pool parties and popsicles, but on key opportunities for learning.

The so-called "summer slide" has serious implications for the achievement gap.

The research is clear that all kids experience learning losses when they do not engage in learning activities throughout the summer. Yet the pattern is more alarming when you start to sort the data by income level. A recent longitudinal study found that the gains that low-income students made in reading during the school year (on par with middle-income students) slipped away during the summer. In fact, evidence shows that two-thirds of the 9th grade reading achievement gap can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities during elementary school.

Many families struggle to find appropriate activities for their kids and teens after schools close their doors for the summer. We obviously have to have a national conversation about how to provide better funding for accessible, high quality and developmentally appropriate summer programs (many of which have been shown to reverse the summer slide). In the meantime, there are things that ALL parents can do with the children and youth in their lives to ensure that summertime is also learning time:

  • Read, read, read! Then read some more. Visit the library, read out loud, start a book club, attend events at the library, create a cozy reading space in your child's room or in the backyard. Let your teens choose what to read and avoid criticizing their choices. Instead engage them in a conversation about your concerns and see what they think about it.
  • Look for quality summer programs. Most communities have lots of options that range from free to very expensive. Visit the program and ask your child questions about what he or she is doing each day and what they like about it. Check out the National Summer Learning Association for more resources.
  • Don't think flashcards. You won't stave off the summer slide by making your child regurgitate information all summer. Summer is the time to scaffold classroom learning with experiences, conversations, ideas, and play.
  • Think engaged learning. Think of the world as your child's classroom in the summer. Most communities have lists of free activities for different age groups - take advantage of museums, nature preserves, libraries, science centers, community events, music and art.
  • Revisit school-year subjects in fun ways. Have fun revisiting the major curricular areas from the year before. For example, if your child learned how to add, cook together and add up the tablespoons you need to add to the recipe. If your child learned about the civil rights movement, look for free speakers, films, or art that touch on the same themes.
  • Don't schedule out free play. Evidence shows us that when kids engage in free play they are building executive function, conflict resolution skills, and creative problem solving. High quality programs shouldn't be so over-scheduled that there is no time for free play. Here are some tips for getting the most out of unstructured time with little kids.
  • Use technology to create. There is nothing wrong with using technology in the summertime but avoid it becoming the default activity. Encourage creative uses of technology - create a family photo book, learn how to code, make a mini-documentary, or interview family members and edit the videos.
  • Move. The research on the benefits of exercise and movement for mood, cognitive development is overwhelming. Run, jump, bike, walk, play, spin, chase, kick, and throw.
  • Volunteer. Summer is a great time for kids and youth to lend their time and energy to causes that they care about.