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Ten fun ways to keep your child learning this summer

Backyard gardens, puppet theaters, scrapbooks and crafts are some of the ways to keep your children active and their minds working all summer long.

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.

Keep the Learning Going

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."

10 Fun Summer Learning Activities

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.

Many photo-sharing Web sites, such as Shutterfly or KodakGallery, will help you (for a fee) create professional quality photo books, where you arrange the photos and write captions.

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.

Comments from readers

"I always enjoy finding new ways to be creative with my 8 year old grandaughter. She has become an avid reader and does exceptionally well in math. One thing that seems to help her are some DVD learing disc I bought for her. One is Reader Rabbit and Zoombinis. These really capture her interest and she also is learing the my laptop keyboard at the same time. For this summer I am going to find some books I think she will enjoy. Her favorite singer is Taylor Swift so I think I will find something on Amazon that she will enjoy. Thanks to all the staff at Great for all the interesting articles for children, parents and grand parents. You help and suggestions for our children and grandchildren are great. My son got a promotion to a new job and I have already begun finding great shcools in the area where they will be moving too. This is another great resource expecially since parents and your firm can rate the various schools this is a big help. Thanks again. Patrick Sanders "
"Your ideas were great reminders of things to do."
"Great Article! Thank you for the info."
"Terrific ideas. I especially like the idea of the family vacation scrapbook to help encourage writing. "
"I completely disagree with your suggestion to make a museum into a treasure hunt. Here's what I would see happening: the kids running (which is not allowed in our museums) from room to room and just when you get to an area you want to see something, they go rushing off in search of their treasure! Instead, I would take your time and you just might find something fun for everyone! Or try the modern art museum or African art or something a bit unusual to interest your children. Plus many art museums have hands on activities for children on certain days. This could also help them be more interested and patient. "
"Thanks for the summer ideas to keep my grandchild busy with fun and learning projects. I also like to play board games, card games and dice games with my grandson. Amazing how fast he learns to add the dice together without counting."
"Like always providing parent excellent ideas, Thanks!!!"
"Like always providing parent excellent ideas, Thanks!!!"
"I apprecciate this website and the information included. I have a 14 year old coming back to live with me and he has issues with school. Some things will help me keep him busy during the summer days and may even help with some of those school issues."
"I sincerely enjoyed your article about summer learning. Being a mother of three children, all under age five, i definately understand the importance, and promote learning and action in almost all the activities we engage in. i have found gardening and cooking to be the most educational and rewarding avenues to share with my kids. They love the involvement they have and the giving and sharing experiences are monumental. We love to wonder and guess how big a plant might grow, or how many flowers one stalk might yield. We end every evening with a short discussion about what we did and learned for the day. our kids just need us to make them realize how special, fun and interesting everyday can be. Thanks for the ideas."
"Thanks for the tips! They're great!! My kids, 5 & 7, just started buying postcards from the post office or from stores near Disneyland and mailing them out to their cousins. It's so much fun for children to get mail...and they're excited to see what they get back! Thanks Again!"
"Pretty good article(s). At this stage of the game most kids think that there's no other activities than xbox & least these ideas seem more original with a new twist. Keep up the good work with new blood!! "
"The family adventures idea was so very wonderful...I am taking it a step further. We are being transfered to another city this summer, so we are taking pics, gathering postcards, getting tourist info and more pics. As well as the girls writing their thoughts on different things we do and about the move. When school starts they will be able to share with their new friends about the city they moved from... I went as far as to include pics of the travel to the new city."
"Fun ways for kids. Thanks"
"Wonderful! Packed with lots more than the 10 listed activities - there are links, there are sidebars containing everything from books to websites to free stuff for kids to write for. A one page wonder for all ages; for all kinds of weather. Thanks from all of us!!"
"Love it! Not only did my kids have fun, they leearned responsibility! Great ideas!"
"Good ideas, but impractical. How exactly are we going to get a kid excited about a trip to the museum? How are we going to introduce them to the value of investing without external motivational factors? And how on earth are we going to plant a zucchini in the garden?! With today's generation, I just don't think you can do that is sad, however, its the simple truth. These are all very old-school fun and educational ideas, granted. Would've been great fun to do, say around 10-15 years ago. Times have changed. welcome to the real world."
"Excellent ideas. Thank you."
"OMG, we were just talking about things to do with the kids that were both educational as well as fun and inexpensive. Thanks so much for reading our minds."
"I never have time to watch the news, but my wife had a great idea that enables me to get the news and interact with my children. It's called 'Turtle News' (no idea where the title came from). My wife and kids learn a few of the coolest things that are going on through or and then report the latest news to me in the evening with re-enactments. It keeps me and my kids in the news. Sometimes they record video clips with my digital camera to include. "
"Great article! many great ideas to get something started. The book-club idea we already came up with...only we call it the Reading Tree. My daughter,son and I picked a tree in our neighborhood and decided that it would be fun to lay down a blanket,have some lemonade and cookies and read the books we checked out at the library. Each of us takes turns reading. Also, we've invited our friends to join us. So far its been a blast,and we have added another blanket. My children are 5 & 8 yrs.old and this is special to them. Thank you for the wonderful ideas. Please keep them coming. "
"My granddaughters just love dressing up in their Mom's childhood tap, jazz and ballet costumes and putting on their own presentations. We video tape and edit just for fun. "
"The article was great!! If you can't get out to buy kits or anything, try looking in your cabinets and drawers. Glueing and counting pasta has been a great pleasure to a little three year old!! "
"This is a great reminder to keep my boys mentally active, not just physically active this summer. They seem to gravitate towards the video games and the couch. I love the ideas and suggestions and will use them as well as share them with my sister and her two kids. Thanks! "
"Great ideas! Thank you! "
"Love the article. I also suggest giving your child a camera and 'documenting' a day in the life of - the mailman, mom or dad at work - whatever. It gives kids a good perspective of what it is people do all day 'at work'. "
"I am in the process of constructing a treasure box-pirate stle for my 4 yr old nephew. Included in the bag are various rocks and minerals with titles and where they are found plus sparkly baubles just to delight the eye, an eye patch, a treasure map,and some histories of famous pirates and what they did. Chocolate coins and real coins along with a reading book complete the bag. Most children this age love to explore and seek treasure and mystery.Also in the bag are insect collecting parphanelia and a spyglass.This can be put in any type of box which you decorate in an eye pleasing way to capture the childs atention. "