Top summer learning activities for young elementary schoolers

Keep your first-, second-, or third-grader sharp this summer with fun brain boosters.

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Rev up reading skills

"If you don’t use it, you lose it,” says Ben Shifrin, head of the Jemicy School in Owings Mills, MD, and an executive board member of the International Dyslexia Association. For a child who’s still mastering reading skills, summer can erode progress made during the school year.

In addition to reading with your child every day (check out our favorite books for first graders, second graders, third graders, and best book series for kids this age), listen to audio books during family car trips. At this age, most kids’ reading comprehension is ahead of their reading capacity, says Micki Freeny, coordinator of children and youth services for the DC Public Library. Audio books hold kids' interest and allow them to practice advanced reading fluency and comprehension — and build their vocabularies — without getting stalled on the language. Best of all, audio books will spark your child’s imagination. Find age-appropriate suggestions on Book Adventure, which rewards reading progress with prizes.

Scribblers into scribes

Educators stress the importance of summer learning — whether to address problem areas, maintain gains made during the past school year, or prepare for the next grade.

Encourage your child to keep a summer journal, chronicling family trips, day camps, and other summer adventures. Have your child to mix it up with short and long entries, illustrations, word collages, and photos with handwritten captions. To get started, take your child to the store to pick out a notebook and special pen. 

Sidewalk chalk is another kid-friendly way to work on writing skills. Have your child practice letters, words, and sentences on the driveway. When you’re beach-bound, encouraging your child to write in the sand with a stick. For handwriting practice kid will love, try Handwriting Help for Kids, which has helpful "letter stories" (The story for letter A? "Slide down one side, hop to the top, slide down the other side, walk across.")

Chase butterflies

Lazy summer days are perfect for getting outside, where your child can experience nature firsthand by watching 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 — and introduce your child to the Latin and colloquial names for animals and plants if you know them. ("These purple flowers are lupinus, but we call them lupins.") Explain what animals eat, whether they’re nocturnal or diurnal (sneak in those big word when you can), and how plants “eat” sunlight.

Encourage bug-loving kids to go on hunts in your backyard or at the neighborhood park. First Hand Learning provides printable mini-journals for kids to document their observations while exploring the great outdoors.

If you’re hitting the road, combine your family vacation with learning at a national park.  And if you can't get there this year, take a virtual visit (you can “do” Yosemite National Park online, too).

Game the numbers

Want to raise a math lover? Play number games here, there, and everywhere.

Online, websites like Math Playground, which has logic puzzles, Funbrain (check out Math Arcade), and coolmath4kids.com, with jigsaw puzzles and math-oriented “brain benders,” make math entertaining.

In the car, do sneaky addition and subtraction drills with your child. Ask her to add up how many hats and beach balls she has, or to subtract her age from the number of times she wants to go swimming. Less fun but valuable: Take advantage of your captive audience by quizzing her on times tables, starting from easiest (1's and 2's) and working up to the hardest (8's and 9's).

On your smartphone, download a free app called Math Drills Lite that quizzes kids on basic math skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Your child can play this while waiting in line or on a drive.

At home, do puzzles and play games as a family. A giant jigsaw puzzle helps kids with spatial awareness. Letting your child be the banker in Life or Monopoly Junior will sharpen money math skills.

Outside, let your child be a lemonade learner by running a summer lemonade stand. This old-school tradition teaches kids about commerce, while honing their communication, writing, and planning skills. If your child’s ready, encourage her to create a price menu and oversee the cash box, too. If you don't live in a stand-friendly ‘hood, Lemonade Stand, a computer game, allows your child to do all this virtually, too.

Count your change

Get ready to empty your pockets — literally. Let your child play with the 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, or four quarters for a dollar. Roll loose change together, counting the coins as you go. Invite your child to go to the bank with you to redeem  change for cash.

If you haven’t started your child on an allowance, this is a good age to start.  If he doesn’t have a piggy bank, make one using an old mason jar or coffee tin. To teach him how to handle money responsibly, decide together how much of his allowance should go to savings, how much he should give to a charity of his choice, and how much he can spend as he wishes. Each week, count his allowance together, then put the agreed upon amounts aside for charity, in the piggy bank for savings, and in his wallet if he wants to make a purchase.

Mathematical meals

Mix a little math into your summertime cooking projects. Even young kids can help measure ingredients when you're baking up a batch of cookies or a birthday cake. Have your child add the ingredients as you go, while you explain they are adding "a half cup" or "a teaspoon". Just hearing these terms and seeing them in use will give kids basic mathematic understanding, and following a recipe helps kids learn sequencing.

For older kids who already understand the idea of fractions, ask for their help doubling or halving your recipe and encourage them to calculate the new measurements. Cooking with Kids is a great resource. When the cooking's done, let them sample the results!

Sneaky science

You child doesn't need a lab coat or beaker to experiment with real-life science. Make old paper new, learn what a pulse is and how to take it, use a magnet to find the iron in cereal, and clean dirty water with the sun — these are just a few of the everyday science activities included in Scientific American’s "Bring Science Home project." (All the activities are based on National Science Education Standards.)

During quiet time, slip science into your child’s nightly reading — see our recommendations for great science and nature books for your first grader, second grader, or third grader.

Go, see, try

Who says field trips are just for school? Designate 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 the state capitol; or a local factory that offers visitor tours. 

Not close to any museums? Kids can visit historical places virtually, thanks to the Smithsonian’s Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web, which allows visitors to  tour Smithsonian exhibitions past and present.

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.