With the seemingly endless days of summer stretching ahead, our blank summer calendar looms like a silent threat. I’ve received the message loud and clear: summer brain drain is a real setback. Research shows kids that don’t continue learning during the summer can lose as much as two months of math — and two months of reading for kids from low-income families — losses that keep accumulating year after year.

Summer school vs. camp vs. funny cat videos

But the fix is harder to decipher because, frankly, summer learning comes in many shapes and sizes. When faced with everything from unstructured day care at the local rec center to a sit-down summer school where kids drill into next year’s math and labor over hours of homework to specialty camps in robotics or digital animation, summer programs tend to be far more diverse than any collection of schools. And then there’s the old-school idea of keeping kids at home to while away the weeks with nothing beyond a desire for downtime and a plea not to waste the day watching YouTube. Every year, parents like me go through this process of debating and searching and choosing all over again.

In a perfect world, my 10-year-old’s days will be fun yet educational, brimming with activities that integrate what he’s learned (and, ahem, didn’t learn) this year with new ideas and experiences. I also daydream of inspiring, age-appropriate, and educationally fun-filled days for my 6-year-old. But as I parse through options that run the gamut from art to science to outdoor adventures, all seem to fit the bill. I just want a smart summer lineup that’s time well spent (and won’t break my budget). So what, exactly, should I look for?

Happily, there are experts out there who have already thought through my summer quandary. California’s Summer Matters campaign — a group effort by nonprofits*, school districts, and private funders who research and advocate for high-quality summer learning programs for all children — have come up with a handy shorthand to evaluate the vast array of summer programs out there. Their 6 Signs of a Great Summer Learning Program helps parents distinguish between the summer programs that simply provide day care and those that make the most of children’s ability to learn all summer long.

6 signs of a great summer program — in a nutshell

  1. Exploring, adventures, and discovery, oh my!

    The first sign of any good program is that it exposes your child to new adventures, skills, and ideas. From visiting the local tech museum to painting a historical mural or hiking in the woods, the idea is to broaden your children’s horizons by giving them a greater sense of what’s possible in our great big world.

  2. It’s all about variety.

    Children positively bloom when they’re exposed to a wide variety of fun, engaging, brain-boosting activities. Designing Lego towns one day, building rockets that actually blast off the next, regularly nurturing a community garden from seed to sapling — a varying list of activities is the second sign that a program combines academics and activities in inspiring and educational ways.

  3. Masters of the universe — literally

    Look for programs that build your child’s skills in something they enjoy and care about to the point of mastery. Do you have a future Oprah Winfrey? The next Yo-Yo Ma? A budding Julia Child? The third sign of a great summer program is that it supports your child’s interests and abilities… from atoms to music to zucchini.

  4. Learning + teamwork = cooperation

    The fourth sign of a great program is that it supports and encourages cooperative learning. Whether it’s a puppet show to be written, built, and performed or a neighborhood cleanup to beautify the block, group activities and team projects help children work together to reach a common goal in a way that sticks with them for a lifetime.

  5. Healthy food, healthy play, every day

    When comparing camps, choose one that builds in healthy habits every day. Is snack time fueled with fresh fruit and veggies — or sugar-packed treats? Are kids active throughout the day — or only once a week? Super summer programs provide your child with nutritious food, many opportunities for physical recreation, and a variety of outdoor activities.

  6. More than just a week!

    Give your child enough time to benefit from summer learning experiences by making sure summer learning lasts at least one month. This final sign of a strong summer choice is crucial in preventing summer learning loss. Combine camps a week at a time or find a program that lasts 30 days or more so the fun — and knowledge — can shine like the sun for your child all summer long.

At the heart of these guidelines is a simple idea: just by planning their child’s summers, parents have a huge effect on their children’s education. “Our goal is to help families find great, affordable summer learning programs that keep learning loss from happening,” says Jennifer Peck, executive director of Partnership for Children & Youth and co-chair of the Summer Matters campaign.

But as Peck notes, it shouldn’t be about creating a grueling academic obstacle course for your kid. Her recommendation? “Keep it simple and fun, but be mindful of learning.”