girl reading a book outside

The hazy days of summer can slip by very fast. While both children and parents want to savor vacation season, now is also the time to help kids get ready for the big transition back to school.

Some families may have succeeded in keeping kids productively engaged as learners right from summer's start, but for those families with any doubts, it’s not too late for activities that will help make the most of the season while smoothing the return to classes and homework that will arrive before we know it.

Why is it important to keep kids socially and academically engaged over the summer?

By the time June rolls around, many kids are all too eager for a break from anything that smacks of school. But staying active as learners over the long summer break is crucial — both for holding on to prior learning, and for being ready to return to school with behaviors and attitudes that will help new knowledge and ideas take hold.

“Summer Slide,” as it’s known among educators, is a serious threat to kids’ reading skills in particular, as a recent study conducted by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, shows. Over the course of three summers, one group of low-income students was given free books of their own choosing. Another group was given activity books instead.

According to the study, which will be published in the fall issue of Reading Psychology, children who received the reading books showed effects comparable to having had attended three sessions of summer school.

Conversely, low-income students typically lose about two months’ worth of reading skills over the summer, according to the National Summer Learning Association, an advocacy group. Compounded over several summers, kids who don’t engage in summer reading can easily fall an entire year behind their peers who do. The same group cites a study showing that most students, at all income levels, fall two months behind what’s expected for their grade levels in math computation skills over the summer months.

It’s healthy for kids to take a break, but if your child hasn’t had much in the way of stimulating activities this summer, it’s time to ease back into learning mode.

What can I do to keep my child socially and academically engaged during the summer?

  • If your children’s school has summer assignments, use them as a way to provide direction and structure to some of their summer days. At many schools, teachers get together and plan fun summer assignments that encourage students to get ready for the next grade levels. These assignments are then used in September to purposefully begin the work of the new school year from day one. Summer work might include choosing and reading a certain number of books from a reading list or keeping a journal. Help your children set a schedule so that the assignment isn’t completed in a frantic rush in the last days of summer, which defeats part of the purpose and can be stressful for them and you.
  • If your family’s vacation plans have kept you out of town a lot, or your kids have been away at camp and out of touch with their school friends, this is a good time to reconnect. Parents of young children should take the lead by making plans for their children; older students should be encouraged to reach out to friends they haven’t spent time with during the summer months.
  • It’s not too late to check with your child’s teachers, your public library and/or local bookstores about summer reading programs. These programs sometimes include rewards, such as free books, in exchange for completing a log documenting your child’s completion of a certain number of books. This is a wonderful way for kids to read more literature by their favorite authors or try out something new as readers. Every book counts, so don’t be discouraged if your children don't have time to work their way through a whole reading list. You might also remind them that now is the time to read purely for pleasure and grab whatever piques their interest off the shelves; there’s less time to read just for fun once school rolls around. The University of Tennessee study highlights the importance of kids choosing their own books. Almost any book, it seems, is much better than no book at all.
  • Ask your child to make an oral (or written, if he or she is willing) current events report for your dinner table discussion. Pick a news story from the newspaper, TV, radio or Web and ask your child to be ready to share the facts and his or her opinion. Older kids might want to cover a particular issue over a few days. Younger children could be ready to share news about their summer school or day camp, or their other summer activities.
  • Ask your child to prepare one of the many lists, notes or cards that organized families depend on. What about lists for ingredients for a special family recipe for a trip to the supermarket, or reminders to go to the laundry or to send a birthday card to grandma?
  • Television and movies can be more than just good fun when experienced together as a family. They can also be a great jumping off point for a discussion of everything from values to entertainment value — helping to build critical thinking skills. Was the story believable? Did your child agree with the main character’s decisions? Engage your kids in discussions about the television shows and movies they watch with you, their friends or on their own.
  • Trips to the supermarket and other family chores don’t stop during the summer, and your child can become more involved or responsible for these chores. Depending on your child’s age, he or she can help find items on your list, help prepare a list of things to buy or do, do the mental math of estimating how much you have left to spend as you go along, and figure out how much change to expect. This is a simple way to fight the typical fall off in math skills experienced over the summer.
  • Involve your kids in planning a family outing or an extended vacation. If you’re going to the movies, let your child figure out or assist in calculating how much the tickets and snacks will cost, check the listings to find out when the movie begins, make a plan for getting there on time by figuring out what time to leave and more. Family vacations could raise an occasion for help in figuring out where to go, where to stay, how to get there and for finding information about what to do once you arrive. Day trips or extended vacations are also wonderful opportunities to start or add to collections, create organized displays and research a collection topic by getting information from books or the Web.
  • Vacations away from home, however short or long, can be documented by gathering mementoes and brochures, taking photos, writing postcards and keeping a journal. Writing captions for a photo album, or creating a slide show or family scrapbook helps kids learn to tell a story through words and images, improving communication and language skills.
  • In addition to reading programs and school reading lists, make sure that age-appropriate and fun reading materials are readily available in your home throughout the summer. Be sure to provide not only books, but also kid-friendly magazines, newspapers, monitored Internet access, graphic novels — anything that will get your child reading.

With just a little effort on the part of parents, and hopefully not too much coaxing, families can make the most of summer and help get kids sharpened up for an exciting new school year ahead.

Developed by Leslie Zackman, M.A. of the NYC Department of Education and Amy Bobrow, Ph.D., Updated by Olivia Smith, August 2010