School’s Out

Five Fun Ways to Keep Kids’ Minds Sharp This Summer



Every summer, kids across the country close their schoolbooks and adjust their inner clocks to the more unstructured hours of summer. They’re ready to let the good times roll.

Yet, studies going back decades have documented a resulting “summer slide” among kids who don’t engage their minds as much as school demands during their joyful break, according to Patricia Froehlich, youth services consultant for the Colorado State Library. To combat this, parents can find ways to strike a balance between learning and fun, grabbing opportunities to teach where they can.

These parents find that the more this learning feels like schoolwork, the faster you lose them. But keeping it fun can not only keep kids from falling behind, it also may give them a leg up when they head back to class in the fall.

The key is in “just hiding the learning in the fun,” counsels Christy Wright, activities director of Big Horn K-12 summer school, in Wyoming. Here are some ways to keep kids’ minds active when they’re out of school:

1. Reading

Summer community reading programs provide age-appropriate options for kids of every grade and help those who aren’t naturally adept readers to find topics that will make them want to pick up a book, advises Froehlich.

Lisa Parry’s inspiration for her own family reading program came on Mother’s Day, when her children asked if they could get out the beads and make their mom some jewelry. They decided that each time her first-grader, Grace, finished reading a book aloud, she got to put another bead on a string that hung on the wall. Grace watched her accomplishments grow, while her parents saw her reading improve.

2. Science

Families that spend time camping and hiking can capitalize on the abundant natural learning opportunities that such activities foster, aided by books on the local flora and fauna. When traveling to another part of the country or the world for outdoor adventures, do some homework together first about what you’re likely to see when you get there.

Indoor science lessons, cleverly disguised as games or toys, may be just as valuable, not only for teaching scientific concepts, but in also fostering skills kids will need when they head back to the classroom.

Kelly Pascal Gould relates how Jackson, her elementary school-age son, naturally gravitates toward experiments and creative projects. One spring, she stocked up on chemistry sets and science kits. Several of them worked to engage the budding inventor, who needed to increase his attention span.

Wright notes that many students that participate in her summer school program are referred to her because they have trouble concentrating in regular classes. She’s learned that projects that teach them about science, nature and how things work tend to keep them focused on the task at hand, and also begin to ingrain in them ways to better concentrate in the future.

3. Games

During Wright’s summer school program, kids come in early to play Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero; she encourages kids to play these and other games on consoles like Xbox, PlayStation and Wii. Games that engage the body, while demanding mental concentration, not only help kids learn new skills, they may also improve their ability to be able to focus when they need to sit still for lessons later, she says.

“[Games that entail] cross-lateral movement, which means doing something crossover, like jumping rope or playing ball, are good, too, because they’re using one side of the body that engages the other side of the brain, so both body and mind are moving,” says Wright. “It helps kids comprehend, and then settle down and learn.” More traditional games provide another type of learning experience, especially when kids make up rules they invent and agree upon as they go along.

4. Cooking

Preparing meals is another forum for engaging kids’ minds during the summer. To enjoy the fruits of their culinary labors, youngsters must first master reading, measuring and following directions—lessons that are much easier to swallow when they are followed by a tasty dish they’ve made themselves, notes Wright.

It may take patience on the part of parents, who see cooking as another household chore to complete as quickly as possible, but taking the time to teach kids cooking skills makes us slow down and realize there’s joy to be found in the kitchen when we have someone to share the work.

Parry’s daughter Grace loves to help in the kitchen, and children generally enjoy the tangible sense of accomplishment when they put a meal they’ve helped create on the table. “She’s old enough now where she can measure and scoop,” Parry says. “It’s fun for both of us.”

5. Art

Gould set up a place at home where Jackson can go and create to his heart’s content. The art room has just about anything a child needs to create his own works of art, she says. Jackson also recently learned to embroider; quite an accomplishment, given the complete focus such an art demands.

Susan Aust’s tween, Tucker, is into art of a different kind, having developed a love of all things theatrical and voraciously reading books about famous actors and actresses, she says. The Austs started a weekly home family film festival, where they all watch a movie together and afterwards, she says, “We talk about the actors’ lives and work.”


Janet Forgrieve is a regular contributor to GaiamLife.com, from which this article was adapted.

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