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Fun Ways To Keep Learning in Summer

As summer vacation begins in a few weeks, some parents are scrambling for activities to fill the days for their children. Often that means summer vacations and trips to the pool or the park.

Education experts say even in the midst of summer fun, it is important to ensure that children don’t lose the skills they’ve learned during the academic year. However, they say relaxing and having fun are equally important, and suggest a myriad of stealthy tricks that parents can employ for laid-back learning all summer long.

Students are encouraged to read many books over the summer. “Talking about what your child is reading is a powerful way to build comprehension skills,” said Blake M. Giliotti, staff development teacher at Potomac Elementary School in Potomac, Md. “It can also be as simple as saying, ‘Tell me about what you are reading.’ Engaging in a natural conversation about a book can give you insight into what your child understands and helps build oral communication skills.”

“I would hate summer learning to feel too much like school. It is important to learn and explore with our kids as naturally is possible.”— Shannon Melideo, Ph.D., chair, Department of Education at Marymount University

Summer book clubs are a good idea as well. “My kids love to pick a book, put together a few friends and send an Evite to the book club,” said Shannon Melideo, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Education at Marymount University in Arlington. “They each read the book and come with a few questions. We have a party that goes with the theme of the book.”

Melideo encourages parents to avoid making the learning aspect of summer activities too contrived. “I would hate summer learning to feel too much like school,” she said. “It is important to learn and explore with our kids as naturally is possible.”

Susan DeLaurentis, director of counseling at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, agrees and encourages plenty of unstructured time for play and a break from a structured schedule.

“I recommend lots of downtime for children over the summer,” she said. “When it’s too hot outside, or on a rainy day, pitch a tent in the living room and go ‘camping’ indoors. Have a bag ready, filled with new board games, card games and books.”

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Cooking with children during the summer teaches math and reading skills, say experts.

GROUP ACTIVITIES can also offer a clever disguise for skill building. “How about rounding up some kids in the neighborhood for a summer carnival game day?” asked Jennifer Suh, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education, College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University in Fairfax. “[A] summer neighborhood carnival will be sure to engage kids in the 21st century skills: four Cs — creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.”

She said carnival games like face painting and popcorn drops can strengthen math skills. “Students have a choice of heart, butterfly, spider web, and lightning bolt,” said Suh. “How many lines of symmetry do you have on your design?”

For help developing science and math game ideas, Suh recommends the visiting www.aimsedu.org/activities/, http://mathbridges.onmason.com/ and www.kidsknowmath.com.

Bob Weiman, director of the Lower School at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School agrees that games can be ideal tools for learning. “ThinkFun educational games are always great,” he said. “Summer is also a great time to introduce your children to classic board games. I just introduced Stratego to my own family last weekend and look forward to playing it over the summer.”

Melideo said that even a trip to the park can become an opportunity for learning, and suggests turning the outdoors into a science lab. “Don’t just go on the swings and slides,” she said. “Look at trees and look under rocks at the park. Elementary school children need to be out digging in dirt and investigating. The more that they’re out investigating the more interested they’re going to be in the world around them.”

Parents can model an interest in discovery and exploration for their children. “Try to notice and get excited about things in nature,” said Melideo. “For example, if a butterfly crosses your windshield, you can point it out to your child with excitement.”

Michele Claeys, associate head and middle school principal at Norwood School in Bethesda, Md., said, “Pick four or five [local] tourist attractions [and] spend a full day exploring. Involve everyone in researching and learning about the site before you go.”

EDUCATORS ALSO RECOMMEND involving children in meal preparation. “If there are days when it’s rainy, that is the time to do cooking,” said Melideo. “It helps teach patience and math and reading skills too.”

Anna Reeves, owner of Tiny Chefs, which offers cooking classes in Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Oakton and McLean, said, “I’ve always been a proponent of using cooking to teach confidence and give children the opportunity to do things that they may not be exposed to at home.”

While middle school students may be more difficult to engage than younger children, educators say the effort is critical. “Middle school is when they really need to be looked after,” said Melideo. “That is when you need to make sure they’re not running off doing their own thing.”

A treasure hunt with a group of friends is an ideal activity. “Middle school students like doing scavenger hunts,” said Melideo. “You can create a treasure hunt, maybe at a museum, where two parents offer to be drivers. The students look for clues and have a fun prize or celebration at the end. They don’t realize how much they’re learning along the way. It is not labor intensive for parents, but it is a fun competition.

When it comes to summer, the bottom line is fun. “Whatever activities parents plan, they should be enjoyable and stress-free,” said DeLaurentis.