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How to Beat Summer Brain Drain

It’s a fact: Kids forget a lot over the summer. Try these clever methods your colleagues use to keep kids sharp on summer vacation.

Teachers often feel like they send their students off on the last day of school equipped with all of the skills they’ll need to succeed the following school year, only to see those same kids forget half of what they learned by the time they return in September.

They’re not imagining it.

Research shows that most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer, while low-income students lose about the same amount in reading (middle-class students make slight literacy gains in July and August).

The situation isn’t hopeless, however. Some experts say that reading just four books over the summer can help prevent a reading slide for kids. And, one imagines, if it’s that simple to hold onto literacy skills, a little math here and there would have a similar effect.

Teachers can’t follow their students around all summer with books and math manipulatives, but they can give students and their families access to resources, opportunities and information. Here’s how to encourage kids to keep learning once school is out (while still enjoying their summer vacations!).

Book Baskets. Tracie Pueschel, an elementary teacher in Sturgis, Michigan, asks local businesses and residents to donate money and books for “book baskets.” At the end of the school year, each child takes home a basket with 12 to 15 books, along with some poems and word searches. “It’s been huge in getting books in our kids’ homes,” says Pueschel. “I’ll run into them in the store, and they say, ‘I’ve been reading the books in the basket!’”

Lit Night. Pueschel invites students and parents to attend her school’s “Summer Literacy Night,” which features stations that provide information on summer enrichment programs, as well as informal learning tools such as sidewalk chalk.

Open Library Hours. To make sure that kids have a quiet place to read, Pueschel’s school keeps its library open to students during the summertime. The school also serves breakfast and lunch, giving parents a “free babysitting” opportunity each morning. The school librarian makes sure that kids rotate between activities—including reading, playing on the computer and building puzzles—and teachers come in to lead special activities. “We have teachers that will sign in and do string art or iron-on crafts, so that we can pull more kids in,” Pueschel says.

The Great Outdoors. The summer months naturally lend themselves to informal science projects like damming up creeks, exploring the woods and digging in the dirt. Teachers can give students an extra push outside by giving them the tools to start a garden, says Susan Roser, an education consultant and former elementary teacher. “You can start seedlings in the spring, and then the project can be completed in the summer as the plants grow,” she says.

Scavenger Hunts. Instead of handing out worksheet packets, consider asking students to complete as many items as possible on a checklist of fun activities—such as going to a museum and looking at the stars through a telescope. Or, you can ask students to keep their eyes peeled for real-world examples of the things they’ve learned in math class. “How many places in your summer travels can you find math concepts—at the grocery store or at the laundromat?” Roser says. “Where can you find the biggest number, where can you find the smallest number? Where can you find shapes?” Roser says teachers might ask older students to interview someone in a career field that interests them.

Digital Resources. Many students today have access to websites and mobile apps that attempt to make learning and math fun. Rosen’s own children have used Khan Academy to brush up on their math skills. “They definitely learned from it,” she says. “It’s engaging, because it’s online, and they were able to measure their accomplishments.” Teachers can help out by giving parents lists of age-appropriate, research-backed resources. Read about popular examples here.

Journaling. Toward the end of the school year, Natalie Simms, an elementary teacher in Oakland, has her students decorate journals, and then asks them to write in the books once or twice a week during the summer. “We brainstorm a list of topics they can write about—an adventure you go on, or the day you went swimming, or a friend you finally got to see who lives far away,” she says. “Some of them bring it back to me next year and say, ‘Look what I did over the summer!’”

High-Interest Reading Lists. Instead of handing out an endless list of classics for kids to wrestle with over the summer, ask students to create their own summer reading lists, based on their interests or upcoming events. “If a book is becoming a movie, or an author is coming to town, the kids get a little bit more excited than if you just say, ‘Go read a couple of books over the summer,’” Simms says.

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