Top summer learning activities for middle schoolers

Keep your sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-grader sharp all summer with fun brain boosters.

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Revvin' up reading skills

Remember when you wanted your child to sleep in? Now your tween rises after morning’s come and gone. Ahh . . . the challenges of a middle schooler on summer break! But even though school’s out, the learning must go on. Why? Because summer learning loss can set a child back academically by as much as two months.

To keep your middle schooler’s hard-earned vocabulary from regressing, launch a word-of-the-day (check out SuperKids’) contest. Agree on a prize for learning a summer goal (say, 50 new words), then have your tween  write each day's words on a note card and tape it to the fridge, record himself saying it and make it his ringtone, even get an extra reward for working it (correctly) into conversation.

While "grammar lesson" reeks of boredom, Mad Libs are fun — and guess what? They’re a terrific way to reinforce parts of speech — and an even better way to pass the time on long car rides. The answers will make you all laugh, and you’ll be smiling on the inside as your child learns. For your child who’s "sick of books," try a new tack with a just-for-fun series perfect for this age range. Since we all know tube-time skyrockets during the summer, negotiate a sneaky learning element: Let your child watch a little extra — but only with the closed captioning (aka subtitles) turned on. That way, at least subconsciously, your child will read along as he watches. For fun, give him bonus minutes for each misspelling, grammar error, or otherwise incorrect caption he catches.

Creativity is cool

Gone are the days of yearning to be a pirate or princess. Now, middle schoolers have cool, creative ambitions like (famous, of course) screenplay writer, novelist, news anchor — you get the drift. Well, writing is a necessity for all of these callings (and crucial for middle school, high school, and college success). Your middle schooler can build her writing skills by starting a blog about an interest or just chronicle her summer vacation. You’ll find free blogging templates available on blogger and wordpress. These same skills can be put to use the old-fashioned way by keeping a journal — a bonus is she’ll have an opportunity to work on her handwriting and cursive. (Hint: Encourage your child to select a journal with lined pages to encourage neat handwriting.)

Is your family celebrating a milestone (e.g. grandma’s 90th birthday, parents’ silver anniversary, a family reunion)? Task your child with memorializing the event in words and pictures. When she’s finished, she can publish it using such sites as blurb or lulu. Bonus: Bound, hard copies of her work can be purchased to share as gifts.

In our increasingly tech-oriented classrooms, one skill your child needs — but may not learn at school — is typing. Luckily, there are a few online sources where your child can learn while playing free typing games (check out Power Typing or Typing Olympic on Sense-Lang).

Number games

Want to raise a math lover? Then don’t let your child start next year behind. The National Summer Learning Association reports that, on average, students of all backgrounds lose about two months of math skills during summer break. Here are fun ways to keep your child’s math skills sharp.

When you're not outside, sites like the Math Playground and Funbrain (check out Math Arcade), can turn math practice into pure entertainment. For a slightly more academic (but still fun) approach, check out Coolmath4kids (or coolmath for prealgebra) and Illuminations. Visual learners can watch videos on teachertube that break down concepts like fractions in an entertaining way. For a hip twist, watch this teacher rap about fr-fr-fr-fractions.

1-2-3 strikes you're out! America's favorite pastime is chock-full of math. For inspiration, check out this site (meant for teachers) about how to create learning activities around baseball.

Hitting the road? Give your tween a little pre-driving lesson about gas. Have your child estimate how much gas will cost. ("How much will we spend if we're driving 111.5 miles and gas costs $4.23 per gallon?") Also talk about how gas mileage is affected by speed and task your child with creating a road-trip budget, including allocations for drinks and roadside snacks.

Stealthy science

Experiment with real-life science all summer long — without a lab coat or beaker in sight: Use a magnet to find the iron in cereal and clean dirty water with the sun by taking advantage of Scientific American’s “Bring Science Home” activities, which are based on National Science Education Standards. Field trips to the local planetarium or an after-dinner star-gazing excursion are great opportunities to raise your child’s interest in astronomy. A show at your local science center’s IMAX theater may just be the ticket to get your tween enthused about a new concept. And websites like NASA provide a virtual experience to complement these visits, too.

Tweens can impress their peers — and science teachers — by growing plants hydroponically using recycled water bottles. Check out Windowfarms to learn how kids can grow edible vegetables and herbs inside, all year round (and the science behind this environmentally friendly, low-energy, high-yield practice.)

Last but not least, have your athlete (or sports enthusiast) check out the Science of Baseball. Our national pastime is chock-full of science lessons — like the science behind home runs and the key to understanding curve balls.

Walkin' on the wild side

Lazy summer days are perfect for getting outside, where your child can experience science in real life by flying a remote-controlled plane or searching for animal tracks. Hike a nearby trail or go bouldering at the base of your local rock-climbers’ hotspot. Along the way, talk about different wildlife, flora, and fauna — and introduce your child to the concepts "family trees" (Kingdom, Order, Family, Genus) for various related plants. You can also talk about, say, how plants "eat" sunlight with a little introduction to photosynthesis.

If you’re thinking of hitting the road, see how you can combine your family vacation with 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.)

Learning through play - even now

Ready to roll the dice? Family game night can still do wonders for your child’s spelling, reading comprehension, and general awareness. Games like Scrabble and Catchphrase both build spelling and vocabulary skills. Another fun one — the Scrambled States of America — helps kids learn state capitols and US geography. Junior Trivial Pursuit (best played in teams or other quick versions) is a great way to expose your child to history, literature, and science. And the kid-pleasing classic, Monopoly, is terrific for reinforcing money, estimation, and multiplication (How much for three hotels?) skills. Want to tone down the competition? Try a 3D family jigsaw puzzle, which helps kids with spatial awareness.

Next time your family hits the road, engage your captive audience in learning. Take the license plate game to the next level by adding trivia, such as which state is the Garden State and how many Great Lakes there are — and how many states they border.

Go, see, do

Who says field trips are just for school? Designate certain days for excursions your child will love: a local historical, art, or tech museum;  a traditionally ethnic neighborhood like Little Italy or Chinatown; or a government-in-action spot like a local courtroom or your state capitol.

If your summer road trip has you traveling by the childhood home of Thomas Edison or along an escape route of the Underground Railroad, check out books on it ahead of time. Chances are your child will be way more enthused (though at this age, it’s admittedly hard to tell sometimes) about stopping to visit if he actually knows a little about it.

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