Photo: -101PHOTO-/iStockphoto.com

Photo: -101PHOTO-/iStockphoto.com

At the end of every school year, I used to buy my daughter a curriculum workbook to help keep her learning skills sharp over the summer. “This one looks like fun,” I’d enthuse as her face fell. Sure, she liked looking at pictures of monarch butterflies, but having to write about the different stages of metamorphosis was a little (OK, a lot) too much like homework. Within weeks the books would “disappear” until it was time for our annual yard sale.

Most kids view summer vacay as a well-deserved holiday for the brain. No surprise then that, on average, kids lose at least a month’s worth of hard-earned knowledge and learning skills over the break, according to a review of 39 studies conducted in the US and Canada. Teachers often have to spend the first four to six weeks of September reviewing the previous year’s forgotten material.

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The summer slide
“There’s definitely a ‘summer slide,’ especially for kids who are already struggling,” says Christine Fraser, a literacy consultant and reading recovery teacher trainer for the Edmonton School Board. While math skills show the highest decline, reading comprehension can take a nosedive too. So what’s a well-intentioned parent to do, without sucking all the joy out of summer for our kids?

“Keep learning simple, fun and stimulating,” says Fraser. “If you make it too much like an assignment, an extension of the classroom, you’re dead in the water.” Think of it as “stealth learning” – getting your reluctant scholar to read, write and do arithmetic without even realizing it.

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Read on
While it can be a challenge to stick to a reading routine with so many summer distractions, it’s worth the effort. “Reading is the foundation of all learning,” says Sandra Huehn, a community coordinator at Frontier College, a national literacy organization based in Toronto. Studies suggest that children who read as few as six books over the summer will maintain the reading skills they had mastered during the previous school year. Reading more than six books leads to even greater success.

The library is a great place to start, since many other summer reading programs that keep children motivated with parties and presents. Toronto mom Robyn Kalda plans on setting up her 10-year-old daughter’s library card so she can borrow e-books throughout the summer. “It’s so fantastic to have the online access,” she says. An iPod and a shared family Kindle also make it super easy for Kalda to “pack” e-books for her trips to see the grandparents in Vancouver and Saskatchewan.

Let them choose their own books
Those hazy, lazy days of summer not only free up more time for kids to discover reading, but also allow for more choice, because kids aren’t being forced to read what’s been assigned to them. Letting your child pick his own reading material, whether it’s Captain Underpants or a graphic novel, may help lure him away from his Xbox – at least for awhile. Cara Squires, a mom of three in Charlottetown, doesn’t mind that her boys’ main reading fix is books about “hockey, Sidney Crosby and hockey. As long as they’re reading, they’re learning,” she says.

​Movies are sometimes the answer
Summer movies can also help reel in reluctant readers. Usually we try to read the book first before seeing the movie, but the reverse works too, says Fraser. “Sometimes a child’s comprehension just isn’t there, and if he sees the movie first, he can better understand the story.” Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, for example, is one summer release that may draw your child into the book series in the same way Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have enticed older kids to read.

Other ways to stay engaged
There are lots of non-book ways to boost reading skills too, whether it’s playing word games like Boggle and Bananagrams, asking your child to read off recipes while you cook, or letting kids help navigate on a road trip. My daughter loves summer scavenger hunts where she has to read and decipher the clues before finding the dollar-store prizes I’ve hidden around the house, backyard or cottage. We also take turns coming up with a word of the day and seeing how many times we can use it in conversation.

Add in a daily measure of math
Most students experience two months’ worth of learning loss in math over the summer. The best way to prevent this is to practise math daily, but that doesn’t mean making your child sit and do problems on a math worksheet, or even on the latest tech toy. Kalda says when she tried giving her daughter some math-based Nintendo games one summer, they were a flop. “Now I just work math-ish stuff into our summer travels – calculating flight lengths, time changes, stuff like that,” she says. Finding ways to incorporate math into everyday activities is a great way to keep those synapses crackling, says Fraser. Have your six-year-old split up an apple pie for dessert, for example, or ask your nine-year-old to compare prices at the grocery store. Bake together and let your little sous chef figure out the measurements for each ingredient, then play card games like crazy eights or war while you’re enjoying the treats. Setting up a small business like an old-fashioned lemonade stand teaches kids how to make change, count up their earnings and decide how to spend it.

Have fun
Like the rest of us, kids learn best when they’re having fun. “When an emotion is engaged, events and ideas are committed to memory more strongly,” write Sharon and Craig Ramey in their landmark book Going to School: How to Help Your Child Succeed, based on 20 years of research involving 8,000 children from kindergarten through grade three. “While negative emotions, such as fear and anger, can reinforce learning, the most beneficial learning occurs from lessons or experiences linked to enjoyment and pleasure.” With that in mind, I’ve stopped buying curriculum books for my now 11-year-old. Last summer, we spent more time checking out art galleries and museums, including the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls, Ont. My daughter now considers herself an expert on monarchs and even bought a book on how to create a butterfly garden in the backyard. Bet that’s one book that doesn’t end up in our next yard sale.

A version of this article appeared in our June 2012 issue, with the headline “Summer brain drain” (p. 58).

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