Think summer is a carefree time when kids should put away the books and cut loose? Think again. If you let your children just hang out, they may fall victim to “summer slide,” or the loss of knowledge and skills acquired during the school year.

Use it or lose it

On average, students who don’t engage in summer learning lose the equivalent of two months’ worth of grade-level math and reading skills, according to the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. “What I worry about a lot is summer reading loss,” former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Education Daily. “You have kids who don’t have a lot of books at home and aren’t read to. You get kids to a certain point in June, and when they come back in September, they’re further behind than when they left you three months ago. It’s heartbreaking.”

Other ways kids lose ground over the break:

  • Students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do at the beginning.
  • Most tend to fall behind in math and spelling because they have fewer opportunities to practice these skills while on break.
  • Teachers spend an average of four to eight weeks every fall reviewing material students have forgotten over the summer.
  • Kids tend to gain more weight when they are out of school — particularly those who are at high risk of obesity and spend a lot of time playing video games or watching TV.

Beyond the classroom

Keeping up on their learning doesn’t mean that children should be studying vocabulary lists and doing math worksheets. Summer is the perfect time for children to discover that education isn’t limited to the classroom.

“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 anytime, anywhere, with handy materials, not only based on the instruction of an actual schoolteacher.”

Summer schooling

Whether you are taking a trip to a far-off place or staying in your own neighborhood, there are ample opportunities for your children to grow and learn. 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.”

Need help stemming the summer slide? Make a list of fun activities to keep your kids engaged and busy. For example, you can:

  1. Organize a book club for kids.

    It’s a great way to foster a love of reading and get kids talking about books. Depending on their age, kids can organize their own or have their parents join in. For tips on how to do it, read How (and why) to start a parent-child book club.

  2. Plant a garden.

    It’s all the rage since former First Lady Michelle Obama started a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. Kids who tend a garden will learn about dirt, seeds and seedlings, where food comes from, and more. Plus gardening is good exercise. You can plant a windowsill garden in your house or start one in your backyard or get together with other families to start a garden at school or on a community plot.

  3. Get theatrical.

    Gather a group of kids together to perform a play. They can write their own script, act out a story they have read, or memorize a play. Family and friends make a great, supportive audience! Check your local library for Lively Plays for Young Actors: 12 One-Act Comedies for Stage Performance, by Christina Hamlet, or other books with plays for young people.

  4. Visit a planetarium, science museum, or zoo.

    Many science museums have special summer programs geared for kids, in addition to interactive exhibits to engage them. A summer field trip can help make science come alive.

  5. Build or bake.

    When you help kids bake a cake or build a bird feeder, they learn about measuring and reading directions, which are terrific math and science skills. They’ll also have the pleasure of creating and sharing their finished product.