Plugging the Brain Drain

An odd thing happens over the summer months that parents and teachers both know: students seem to lose some of the skills acquired the previous school year. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. Aside from more than two months of non-academics, students often suffer from having had insufficient practice time, especially toward the end of the prior school year, when testing and end-of-year activities dominate the school day.


Valuable practice opportunities need to be continued through the summer months in order to truly cement skills children have learned. The old saying that one needs to “use it or lose it” applies to students as much as it does to older adults retaining mental facilities as they age.


Is this an argument for year-round schooling and shorter vacation times? Certainly, many school districts have adopted that approach for this reason, as well as being able to accommodate larger student populations. What is certain is that while school may be out for the summer months, it is vital to keep your child engaged in some mental activity that will reinforce the basic skills they need to continue to achieve.


“We always push for families to ensure that the children are getting an abundance of enrichment,” says Ron Machado, principal of Miraloma Elementary School in San Francisco. “Students need to continue to practice their basic academic skills on a regular basis to help prevent the summer slide that could happen.”


In the Bay Area, parents rely on a variety of summer activities to help their children retain skills. For some, summer school is an option, a way to keep academics strong while still having more than half the school day free for summer fun. But during these recessionary times, school budget woes have shrunk or even eliminated many summer school options.


Some summer camps have incorporated academics as part of their overall summer plan. However, camps are pricey and many parents are unable to afford it, especially given the current economic climate.


Still, whether you send your child to a summer program or not, there are many ways you can keep your kids’ minds as healthy as their bodies this summer.


1. Day at the Museum.

Take advantage of what we have in our own backyard, from smaller local museums to larger ones in Oakland and San Francisco. Then, help your child create a report, painting, display board or other project to show what they saw and learned. These can also be augmented by the many online multimedia presentations for added depth. You’ll be surprised how much kids enjoy doing such projects “for fun.”


2. Summer Jobs.

An excellent real-world experience is to give your child a summer job, complete with allowance, for which they will need to use the very skills you want them to retain. Babysitting, lawn mowing, pool cleaning and pet sitting are all great jobs for children and youths. Then, help them set up their own budget.


3. Go Shopping.

In addition to their personal budget, have kids help out with the family budget, says Piedmont Middle School teacher Jeanine Tredinnick. “When you go to the grocery store, involve your child in estimating the cost of the total bill, calculating the change or simply counting the number of items that are in the basket. If they get close, give them a prize, make it a game!”


Assign grocery tracking and inventory at home. Give your child a food budget. They must categorize your pantry and fridge into various classifications of food groupings and get a sense of how quickly things need to be replenished. Plug in the cost of the food items and tax, and log that on the food budget sheet. You have just covered all the basic math functions that students always need to reinforce. Coupons now add an additional component to help the budget.


4. Be Bookish.

To keep reading skills strong, the family should have a common area of interest, whether it is science or current events or some other subject. Trips to the library for books on these subjects and a shared reading at home, after dinner, will help your child’s vocabulary, reading skills and reading confidence.


“Enrolling through the local library programs is always a good option,” says Machado. “This provides children with all of the summer adventures they could ever imagine while keeping them involved in literacy.”


Tredinnick agrees. “Let your child choose a book of interest, including nonfiction, from a local bookstore or library. It is important the child has a choice in the book he or she reads.”


While many schools still use sustained silent reading (SSR) time, studies have shown that reading aloud is of  greater benefit. For one thing, students can hear words that they might otherwise just glance over visually.


Reading to a parent or sibling is useful for the feedback, but most parents know that listening to a child reading one of their age-appropriate stories is not always exciting for the parent. By having a common area of interest, the reading will also spark discussions.


“The added benefits of a richer vocabulary, and reading fluency are an extra bonus,” says Tredinnick. “Instead of having your child write about the book he or she reads, have them act out a chapter or make a comic strip of the beginning, middle and end of the story.” Interactive activities can turn any lesson into something more enjoyable. The more reality that gets injected into learning, the better the lesson gets understood.


5. Take a Trip.

Families can go on field trips, too. Pick a subject, and then go somewhere to study it. One suggestion for the summer months is astronomy. Learning about the formation of the solar system and the galaxy, coupled with watching for shooting stars, or identifying constellations, can be fun during a family trip to Yosemite National Park or even local trips to science centers.


“Family trips, even short day trips, can be educational,” says Tiffany King, a fourth grade teacher in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. “Using a map reinforces skills used in math and science. Calculating how much time will pass before the family car needs more gas is another activity. Or, a student can use a compass to plot their own journey even without a map. Using minutes of driving for a scale of one centimeter, students can plot out a fairly accurate rendition. Angles can be measured.”


6. Home “Work”.

A common complaint among parents is a lack of hands-on training in the school system. Home projects offer a way to fill that void.


Have your child help with small construction projects around the house, like painting or hanging pictures. Also, cooking provides a tasty way to brush up on math skills. Following recipe directions and doubling recipe sizes that are presented in fractional formats can be a fun way to keep those skills alive. Your child can even learn to prepare dinner, using their reading skills, problem-solving skills and coordination skills in a way that can only enhance their classroom abilities.


Having your upper elementary and middle school students calculate tips at a restaurant is a real life way to practice percents, Tredinnick says.


But don’t make it “work” for the kids, the experts agree. After all, summer is for fun.


“The main thing is to ensure that children stay active and get outside for a large portion of the day,” says Machado. “As a father, I am grateful to spend time with my girls doing activities that can be difficult to schedule throughout the school year such as camping, traveling and picnics.”


What is certain is that allowing your child to have no mental activity that uses skills learned the previous school year will be detrimental. It is not uncommon for a child’s reading level to drop one or two levels over the summer simply for lack of practice. With a little effort, that is a problem that can be avoided – and your family will have some fun in the process.


André Gensburger is a Concord-based writer and educator. Read his blog at

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags