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Smarter Over the Summer

If you’re like me, then a small part of you dreads the summer holiday. OK, so there are days I downright fear the hours and hours of unfilled, unstructured time looming like an endless, churning sea barreling toward me with its tsunami froth. Worse than my fear, though, is the realization that many children actively lose knowledge over the summer months.

Students enter the new school year on average with one-month less knowledge than they possessed from the previous grade. Math takes the biggest hit: More than 2.5 months of the former school year fizzles from kids’ heads as they while away hours in front of SpongeBob or Guitar Hero, according to the Review of Educational Research.

No wonder many teachers dislike the first month or so of school; review has its place but should not be a requisite each year. Over time, those months of lost knowledge and re-teaching add up to an enormous swatch of wisdom children simply never retain because of the brain drain otherwise known as summer vacation.

Which leaves us parents as the one bastion between a summer filled with fun and discovery and one peppered with moping and those three words that spread terror (and chaos) through my home: “Mommy, I’m bored!”  

This year, I’ve gearing up to make sure our summer is not only fun, but also educational – with minimal TV and computer time (which should be the exception, not an expectation). Of course we’ll take advantage of all the camps available in the Metroplex, but I am also looking for additional, concrete ways to enhance learning together as a family. All I need is a little push from some creative educators and veteran homeschooling moms to show how easy this whole teaching-at-home thing can be. So, let’s jump into a fun-filled, edifying summer together. Ready? Come on, I dare you!

It’s Elementary, Mom

Mary Ann Greene, founding director of The da Vinci School in Dallas, believes that parents can turn almost any activity into a learning experience. The key is how parents engage their kids. Her best advice: Don’t test your kids on everything. Children need dynamic learning, which is “not always black and white like testing,” Greene says.

“Education is helping to encourage inquiring minds and the desire to learn and the skills that allow that to occur.” She says that by permitting children to make discoveries through gentle, subtle prodding, parents do more for their children than by lecturing facts to them.  

For the most part, children follow a fairly typical learning pattern. Linda Ladd, Ph.D, psychology professor at Texas Women’s University, explains the basics: Young children are concrete thinkers in which “love is a Valentine and happiness is the meeting of an immediate need. Concrete thinking is the expected level of thinking until about age 10 or 11, at which time children begin to move into abstract thinking,” she says. As always, children move at their own paces, “but an environment that is child-friendly can help children be free to grow into abstract thinking. It is commonly agreed that nature establishes talents and abilities (I cannot make my children smarter) but nurture enables the child to make the most of what they have (I can offer my children different opportunities and the child can gravitate toward any that fit his talents or abilities),” offers Ladd.  

Lori Leeke of Collin County homeschooled four children through middle school, one of whom is a National Merit Finalist. Her best advice to parents is to sit down with the calendar and plan before or at the start of summer vacation or the summer will evaporate quickly. She suggests scheduling regular, at least weekly, trips to the library to hang out for an hour or more. Leeke also recommends returning home with a stack of audio books and tomes for family read-a-louds. She likes children’s classics because they are always a pleasure for the entire family.  

“Helping our children to become avid readers is the best educational assistance we can offer, because it gives them a greater love of learning, establishes intellectual curiosity, increases vocabulary and helps children to better express themselves verbally and on paper.” Leeke, ever-organized, even keeps an Excel sheet with books for those long summer evenings. Some of her family’s favorites include d’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Jan Lacina, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor at TCU’s College of Education, the mother of twin girls and a strong proponent of early literacy. When asked what she recommends to parents this summer, she says, “Practically, parents can build [a literary-rich] home environment by encouraging children to draw – and by asking them questions about their drawings. They can read each day to them, asking a variety of questions. Even though young children may not be able to ‘read,’ they are developing listening comprehension.”

And listening comprehension is an important step in the process toward literacy. Rosie Watson, founding owner of the Metroplex’s Creative Arts in Action who homeschooled three kids, also believes reading is the core of any subject. Some of her favorite references are Five in a Row, Total Language Plus and Visualize World Geography. Still, she notes, learning is part of everyday life.

“If you go to the beach, learn about the marine life. Got a grandparent with a farm?  Learn about cows or other farm animals. I used to ask if my kids could watch while the repairman fixed the washing machine. It’s a good life skill, to be able to fix things.”

Watson also suggests using doctor’s visits as an opportunity to teach medical jargon. (What is a stethoscope? What is it used for?) Just pick up cues from the daily routine and pounce on those teachable moments.

Just remember not to make it look like work (for you, not the kids).

“A parent’s positive attitude and enthusiasm is infectious to children,” says Charlane Baccus, the Assistant Head of The Clariden School in Southlake. She likes parents to find hands-on activities for children over the summer break because “a child who has been at a desk during the school year needs time to explore and wonder.” Baccus suggest parents take time to talk about nature, explore the backyard or find items from around the house to build things together. A playhouse, birdhouse or doghouse are good options, with parental supervision, of course.  

“There’s a lot of geometry in how to hit a nail properly,” playfully adds Greene (who spent one summer working on a construction crew to teach herself practical life skills).

Anna Philpot is a writer and mother of two young daughters who cannot wait for the local swimming pool to open.