The first day of summer is June 20, and by this point, your child is probably already knee-deep in his or her summer break. At this time of year, many parents find themselves faced with a dilemma: do they give their children a break to “let them be kids,” or do they try to engage their children in summer learning? It can seem like a Catch-22—if you leave summers free, you risk your children backsliding in learning, but if you book up their summer, you risk burning them out. What is a parent to do?
Summer learning loss: Is it really that bad?
It can be tough to gauge a child’s loss in knowledge, because to a parent, it happens gradually. However, the loss is real and significant. One study found that for elementary school students, regardless of household income, kids lose about 2 months in mathematical skills for every summer. If the student is low income, they can also lose about 2 months of reading skills for every summer (Cooper, Nye, Charlton, Lindsay, & Greathouse, 1996).
These losses in ability can add up to a significant knowledge gap over a child’s time in school. Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson (2007) found that by 9th grade, the achievement gap found between students could be largely attributed to differences in what the students did with their summers. That is, students who spent summers learning were more academically advanced than students who did not.
The effects of this loss in learning also translate directly to performance in schools. A study found that when the same standardized test was administered to students at the end of the school year and again at the beginning of the following school year, students performed significantly worse after a summer break (Downey, von Hippel, & Broh, 2004).
Do Summer Learning Programs Burn Kids Out?
Generally, the fear of burning out a kid by encouraging learning over the summer seems to be ungrounded. Some experts cite the success of year-round schools as evidence of this. A year-round school eliminates the lengthy summer break, and instead scatters shorter breaks throughout the year. Students with these schedules tend to excel in comparison to students in a traditional school schedule (Downey et al., 2004).
In fact, the use of summer learning seems to only pose benefits to children, provided one crucial factor: keep learning fun! Kids deserve to have a break from the structure and homework of the school year, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to turn their brains off for three months. Experts say that as long as learning stays interesting and less structured, the risk of burn out is minimum (Talk of the Nation, 2011).
With the same breath, it is important to point out a common misstep here. Given the go-ahead to keep kids engaged, parents sometimes feel the need to over-book their children. Your students will absolutely need breaks from structured pursuits, so if they are scheduled for every moment of their summer, this could lead to the students becoming overly exhausted by their workload (Mason, 2015).
How to Keep Kids Learning Over the Summer
Keep Learning Fun
As previously mentioned, one of the most important things a parent can do to prevent learning loss is to keep learning fun. This can mean trips to a local museum, wandering around the zoo, nature walks, or educational crafts. If it feels like those activities are very different from their normal school environment, it should! Kids are more likely to comply if they feel like it’s a fun outing rather than a science lesson.
Any activity can be turned into a learning experience with a little preparation. For example, instead of just going on a hike, look up some information about local flora and fauna (if you can do this with your child, even better!). Encourage your child to locate specific kinds of plants, identify animal tracks, or figure out what kind of rock they are holding. A museum trip can become highly educational with a guided tour, explaining the history of the art pieces and from which countries the various paintings came. Hold regular conversations with your children, asking them what they learned that day or just raising an open-ended question.
Experts have cited reading as one of the most beneficial activities a student can engage in over the summer (Talk of the Nation, 2011). If you are grumbling at this, wondering how you are going to get your child to read on their break, here is the good news: it doesn’t really seem to matter what they are reading. During the summer, your child can read anything that interests them, and just the mere act of reading a book is enough to benefit them, regardless of content (Talk of the Nation, 2011). Make a trip to the library into a fun afternoon trip, and help your kids get excited about reading!
Finally, summer programs have shown great success in boosting learning. A recent study found that students are most successful in summer programs when the program is of high quality (well-trained teachers, small classes, and curriculum aligning with school curriculum) and when attendance is high (Huggins, 2013).
How helpful are summer learning programs?
Some research has shown that summer programs in particular can be extremely effective. In fact, Berliner (2009) found that summer programs can ameliorate the negative effects of factors that have been well-documented to be detrimental toward academic performance, such as low socioeconomic status or environmental pollutants. Another recent study showed evidence that summer programs can not only prevent summer learning loss, but even work to boost student achievement past where they were when the previous academic year ended (McCombs et al., 2011).
It is very important that we make strides to decrease the learning loss that happens over the summer. Not only does it result in a need to re-learn once the school year begins again, but it also wastes valuable class time reviewing concepts that students should already be familiar with. One study surveyed teachers in the field, and nearly all of them indicated that they spend 1-2 months of the school year re-teaching information from the previous year (Huggins, 2013). That means students are only able to learn new information for about 7 months of the year. We have to be able to do better than that.
What do you, as parents, do to help your children stay engaged over the summer? Do you notice a significant difference in their school performance when they spend their summer learning?