Top summer learning activities for tykes

Top tips for keeping your preschooler or kindergartner sharp this summer.

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Rev up the reading

With all kids — especially younger ones — it's really important to make reading fun. "Parents need to emphasize the pleasure of reading," says Micki Freeny, coordinator of children and youth services for the DC Public Library.

To start your reading-is-fun campaign, go on a library treasure hunt. Take your child's current interests — hamsters, outer space, ballet — and hunt together for books on her favorite topics. (Can't find what you're looking for? Look no further than your librarian!) Take advantage, too, of the free story times and summer reading contests (with prizes) most every library hosts. Also, consider checking out a great book series, which your child can really fall in love with during the laid-back summer months.

Keep the reading high jinks going by coming up with a list of funny places your child can read a book: in the bathtub, under a tree, on the stairs, in a backyard tent, inside a homemade fort. After checking off all the locations on the list, she wins a special summer prize, like a trip to an amusement park, local swimming pool, or favorite restaurant.

During long car trips or even lazying about at home, listen to audio books. (Check out BookAdventure for great audio book lists.) Without being held back by what they can’t read yet on their own, kids can build their vocabularies, get a feel for fluency, and practice advanced reading comprehension by listening to recorded stories. 

Scribblers and scribes

Young children can work on writing skills by keeping a summer journal — chronicling family trips, day camps, and what they’re looking forward to next year. To keep it light and fun, add in illustrations, word collages, and photos with handwritten captions. Even if you have to do most of the writing for your preschooler or kindergartner, journal keeping will reinforce the lesson that writing is valuable — and fun.

Retired kindergarten teacher Mary Kay Goetz suggests taking your child to the store to pick out a notebook and a fun pen to get him excited about journaling. (Or download and print this free summer journal.) "Kids don’t have to journal every day, but they should do it a few times a week," Goetz says. When they do, sit down and read the entries together. Young children love recounting their own stories!  free summer journal.

Sidewalk chalk is another fun, easy way to work on writing skills. Have your child practice letters, words, and even sentences on the driveway. At the beach, use Mother Nature's blackboard by writing together in the sand with a rock or a stick, then letting the waves erase your words so you can start over again.

The daily number

To help your preschooler or kindergartner feel at ease with numbers, choose a number of the day. You can even create a number jar, writing down a couple dozen numbers, then letting family members draw the daily winner.

Prominently write the number on a white board, the driveway with sidewalk chalk, or in magnets on the kitchen refrigerator. Throughout the day — whether driving in the car or making dinner — practice counting (to make it sillier: sing it like an opera, country, or pop singer) up to, and back to, that number. If the daily number is eight, choose, say, eight things they like about summer, eight people they love, eight books they've read... the possibilities are endless.

Scenic science

Take advantage of the great outdoors — and get a natural science lesson to boot — by touching a caterpillar, chasing butterflies, or searching for birds’ nests. Take a stroll through a local nature preserve or hike a nearby trail. On your walk, point out different wildlife, flora, and fauna. You can also talk about what animals eat, whether they’re nocturnal or diurnal (See how you can sneak in those big words!), and how plants “eat” sunlight. Check out National Geographic Kids for fun facts about nature. For bug-loving kids, check out Bug Guide to learn more about any creepy crawlies you've found on your treks.

Young children love collecting things, so bring along a "safari" bag and let your child collect natural treasures — remembering to comply with any park's rules about what visitors are prohibited from taking — be they rocks, sticks, or leaves. (A quick and essential naturalist's rhyme to teach your child, so you don't come home with poison oak or ivy: Leaves of three, let them be!)

Not taking a safari this summer? Take advantage of the zoo as an invaluable resource to learn about creatures worldwide. Before or after a zoo visit, check out one of the world's most famous zoos online to collect even more information about the wild kingdom. San Diego Zoo's site for kids can tell you that a young tapir looks like a walking watermelon and that every tiger's stripes, like a person's fingerprints, are unique.

If you’re hitting the road for your family vacation, consider learning at a national park. And, if you just can’t swing an in-person look, visit them virtually. (You can “do” Yosemite National Park online, too.) 

Clean up in math

Turn clean-up time into a productive math lesson. Ask your child to organize stuffies, games, costumes, and other toys into categories — by color, shape, or type. This simple exercise helps young kids build on math sense — from spatial recognition to basic geometry. Up the gamesmanship by having your child guess the number of blocks, monkeys in a barrel, and puzzle pieces that he's putting away.

Have a load of clean laundry to fold? Sorting provides lessons in other math basics (including counting and shape recognition), so enlist your tyke to help by dividing clothing by family member and then type — shirts over there, socks here. For extra incentive, remind him that with this much household help, there'll be even more time for outdoor play!

Counting coins

Get ready to empty your pockets — literally. Let your child play with money in your wallet or the family change jar. Help her sort the different coins and bills into groups. Play “bank” by swapping 25 pennies for a quarter, four quarters for a dollar, etc. Also, set aside some time to roll loose change together, counting the coins as you go. Invite your child to go to the bank to redeem that change for cash.

Field trip fun

Who says field trips are just for regular school? Include your child in planning your own field trips (sneaking in a lesson about days of the week) by designating certain days for special excursions: a local historical, art, or tech museum; a traditionally ethnic neighborhood like Little Italy or Chinatown; a government-in-action spot like a local courtroom or your state capitol; or even a local factory that offers tours. Go to ParentsConnect to find everything from museums to special event in your area.

Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a freelance writer based in Detroit. She has written for  children's health and parenting magazines and blogs about both topics at Mom meets baby.