By GreatSchools Staff
Summer vacation can be either a learning wasteland or a learning paradise. The temptations are great for children to spend hours watching television or playing video games, but with a little ingenuity and planning, the summer can be transformed into a time to stretch the mind, explore new hobbies, learn about responsibility and build on skills learned during the school year.
Teachers spend an average of four to eight weeks every fall reviewing and reteaching material that students have forgotten during the long summer break. Many students lose the equivalent of one to two months of reading and math skills during the summer and do not score as well on standardized tests as students who continue to learn during the summer. The effect is cumulative: Each summer a student isn't learning adds up and can have a long-term impact on overall performance in school.
That doesn't mean that children should be doing math worksheets and studying vocabulary lists to preserve the skills they have learned during the school year. Summer is the perfect time for children to discover that learning is fun and can happen anywhere. "You don't want your kids to think that learning is only something that happens in places called schools," says Susan K. Perry, author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14. "Rather, you want them to grasp that learning is fun and can go on all the time, anytime, anywhere, with handy materials, not only based on the instruction of an actual schoolteacher. The summer is a great unstructured mass of time to try out new things and explore interests that don't necessarily fit into the school curriculum."
Learning can take place whether you are taking a trip to a far-off place or spending the summer in your own neighborhood. But be careful not to over-plan. "To avoid boredom, a child has to learn to be motivated on his or her own, to a certain extent, and that is an acquired skill," says Perry. "If every time your child says, 'I'm bored,' you step in with a quick solution, they'll never learn to develop their own resources. But do provide some options. Just don't try to instill learning. That's not how it works."
Here are some activities to get your child started on a summer of learning fun:
1. Grow the biggest zucchini in your neighborhood.
What better way to learn the basics of science and how things grow than to plant your own garden? You can start with seeds or small plants. Talk about what plants need to be hardy: air, water, sunlight and nutrients. Vegetables are especially fun and educational to plant because your child will learn where food comes from and will also get to eat the end product.
2. Clip, paste and write about your family adventures.
A family vacation is a perfect opportunity to create a trip scrapbook that will be a lasting souvenir of family adventures. Collect postcards, brochures and menus from restaurants and tourist attractions. Encourage your child to write descriptions of the places you visited and tell stories about your family's escapades. Or suggest a scrapbook on your child's favorite sports team or a chronicle of his year in school. The scrapbook might contain photos with captions, newspaper clippings or school mementos.
3. Get theatrical.
Young children can make their own puppet theater. Begin by cutting off the finger-ends of old gloves. Draw faces on these fingers with felt tip markers and glue on yarn for hair. Or glue on felt strips to create cat, dog or other animal faces. Then your child can create a story that the finger puppets can act out. For older children, find books containing play scripts for young people (see "Helpful Books" sidebar)and encourage your child and friends to create their own neighborhood theater. They can plan a performance, make a simple stage at the park or on the steps of someone's home, create playbills and sell tickets.
4. Make chocolate mousse or build a bird feeder.
Toy stores and craft shops are full of kits for making things, from bird feeders to model airplanes to mosaic tableaux. These projects teach children to read and follow directions, and offer the added benefit of creating a finished product. Science experiment books encourage children to observe and ask questions while providing hours of hands-on fun using scientific concepts.
What child wouldn't be inspired to bake cookies or make chocolate mousse? A cookbook geared for children is a good place to start. Ethnic cookbooks provide an excellent way to explore the food of other cultures, and open up conversations about how people do things differently in other parts of the world. Children are much more likely to eat something strange if they make it themselves.
5. Paint the picket fence, baby-sit or volunteer at a soup kitchen.
Even young children can learn to be responsible by helping to set the table, take care of a pet, clean out a closet, wash the car or paint the picket fence. Ask your child to be your energy consultant and help find ways to conserve energy in your house. Outside summer jobs and community service help children learn to be punctual, follow directions and serve others.
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