Top summer learning activities for teens

Sneak learning into your high schooler's summer days to prevent the off-season brain drain.

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Ramp up reading

Chances are your high schooler has a summer reading list — but don't stop there. Teens should read magazines, websites, and newspapers to improve reading comprehension, build vocabulary, and increase their knowledge of current events.

Now that your reading aloud days are mostly over, try a new spin. Let your child select a book for you both to read, then discuss how it to turn it into a movie: What actors would play the protagonist and the villian? How would you film the dramatic opening and closing scenes? If the book has been made into a movie, watch it together and discuss how the two compare. If your child has access to a movie camera and friends who are willing to act, encourage her to make her own film. 

If your child enjoys a certain book, encourage her to read another by the same author. Start with a riveting book series for young adults.

You may want to buy your child an E-reader, if you think it will boost her enthusiasm for reading. Another high-tech option: encourage your child to experience the classics via podcast. Open Culture has a terrific list of free podcasts. 

Recast writing

Strong writing skills are essential — for SAT essays, college applications, college essays, the job world, and beyond — and the only way to develop those skills is to practice.  But  simply telling your teen to write more is unlikely to be effective. Instead, try gearing writing activities to your teen's specific interests.

If your child is into journalism, for example, he can get writing and reporting experience (and maybe earn some spending money) by working with your local Patch. If she's into poetry or songwriting, give her a notebook for her summer creations.

If your teen likes movies, sports, or the great outdoors, anything and everything is fodder for a personal blog (check out these free templates on blogger or wordpress). Or your child can write her autobiography. Using or, she can publish her finished work — photos and all.

Your teen may be more motivated to write if it involves a competition — and a cash prize. You’ll find cool contests at Teen Ink. Teens looking for feedback on their writing can submit a sample to, which gives real-time feedback from an expert. Many libraries have a subscription to the site, which your teen can access with her library card.

Numbers that aren't mind-numbing

Make sure your child hits the ground running next fall. The National Summer Learning Association reports that students of all backgrounds lose about two months of math skills during summer break. Here are a few awesome ways to keep your teen’s math skills sharp.

Driving for dollars - On family road trips, have your teen estimate how much you'll pay for gas ("If gas is $4.23 per gallon, and we need 111.5 miles of gas, how much will it cost?")  Or ask your child to create a family vacation budget. This simple worksheet is a great place to start.

Online gaming - On Illuminations, your teen can play Calculation Nation with other teens on the web, or check out activites from decoding text messages to understanding sound waves. Or connect you teen to phone apps like Unblock Me, which features countless mind-stretching puzzles.

Math menu - When you're eating out this summer let your child calculate the tab. Ask her to estimate the meal total (without going over), and when the check arrives, let her estimate the correct tip. At the grocery store, ask your teen to estimate your total grocery bill. If this doesn't interest your eye-rolling teen, make it worth his while by offering to let him keep any money he saves you by finding acceptable, less expensive alternatives to the items on your list.

Sneaky summer science

Experiment with real-life science all summer long. She can get inspiration from Science Fair Projects World for anything from experiments on memory and TV to global warming to the accuracy of horoscopes. Teens can impress their peers — and science teachers — by growing plants hydroponically using recycled water bottles. Check out Windowfarms to learn how teens can grow edible vegetables and herbs inside, all year round (and to read about the science behind this environmentally friendly practice.)

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 teen excited about a new concept. Websites like NASA provide a virtual experience to complement these visits, too.

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.

All fun and games

Family game night may not be easy to orchestrate at this age, but you can lure your teen into educational games using apps like Words with Friends and Chess with Friends on your phone. When game night does come together, Scrabble, Cranium, and Catchphrase build spelling and vocabulary skills. Other good bets include Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit (play in teams — it’s faster and more fun that way) which help kids learn everything from famous historical quotes to geography. Or play a spirited game of Argue!to hone those debate skills. Want to tone down the competition? Try a 3D family jigsaw puzzle, which helps kids develop spatial awareness.

Next time your family hits the road, take advantage of having a captive audience. Teach your kids geography by looking at maps and asking questions like, "Which state is the Garden State?" "How many Great Lakes are there?" or "Which states border Vermont?"

Getting away

Chances are your teen is eager for a summer adventure — and a little time away from home. Wilderness camps and excursions offer teens a chance to explore the great outdoors. For a super-charged experience, send your teen on an Outward Bound excursion, where high school and college students learn leadership and wilderness survival skills.

Closer to home, challenge your teen to spend one afternoon per week checking out nearby “education hot spots.”  She can visit a historical, art, or tech museum, an  ethnic neighborhood like Chinatown, a government-in-action locale like a courtroom or local college campus. Set her up with a bus pass, a map, and a little spending money, and let her venture out on her own or with a friend.


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.