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Sneaking learning into playtime prevents dreaded 'summer slide'

It’s summertime and while Kate Whiting’s kids, 7 and 9, are on the traditional school break, she’s not letting it become a learning break.

At the grocery store in San Francisco, California, the founder and CEO of Educents, a marketplace for educational products, has her children pay or calculate what it will cost to buy the food on their shopping list. When her son said Egyptians fascinate him, they went online and learned about them, then started building Egyptian items with Legos.

So are Allan and Heather Staker of Austin, Texas, who launched the educational business Brain Chase after a discussion about their five kids and summer while on a short road trip. She wanted to create a “play list” to challenge them. He didn’t want to nag them with schoolwork. By the end of the car ride, they’d come up with an online learning series and worldwide treasure hunt that unlocks clues by completing academic assignments.

For the Whitings, the Stakers and millions of other parents, the issue is “brain drain” or “summer slide.” Students lose between one and three months of learning over summer vacation, according to the National Summer Learning Association. Experts say math is the hardest-hit subject, the loss of roughly 2.6 months of grade-level skills as predictable as the summer calendar. Reading and spelling skills decline. And the problem is worse for low-income students, whose reading scores worsen as the gap between rich and poor children widens.

Experts say teachers spend two to six weeks reviewing at the beginning of each new school year, trying to regain what was lost over the summer. The goal of summer learning is enhancing learning through intellectual stimulation.

Unequal access

Parents in all income brackets ponder how to keep children active and learning over summer, but their resources are not the same. Some parents can pay for international travel or summer school or weekslong camps that give the children things to do and opportunities for new experiences and learning.

But some families can't afford much in the way of formal summer engagement and learning. One lament of the season is that the learning part is easier to come by for those with money.

“One of the things that takes place when it comes to summer, especially in urban communities and lower-economic areas, is parents depend on school to keep that learning momentum up. In summer, if they can’t afford summer programs, there are a lot of issues. Research says when children don’t receive direct exposure to the things they learned, they lose it,” said Alphonso Evans, CEO and principal of Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School in Philadelphia.

Because low-income students have less access to summer enrichment programs, “it’s estimated as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap is the result of summer learning loss,” says, which gathers data on education and on online learning. The site says early losses turn into greater risk of dropping out or failing to go to college.

The Stakers said they are aware that some children don’t have resources for elaborate offerings available to others, so they offer three price ranges for their Brain Chase program. The winner of the high-tech treasure hunt earns a scholarship and gets the trip of a lifetime to dig up the treasure — buried one year on Mount Fuji, another in southern France.

It’s up to those lower-income parents to figure out what’s free and doable or find ways to otherwise incorporate learning into everyday lives. The good news is parents can challenge their children in different ways that everyone will enjoy. Learning can be cheap and cheerful when parents approach it in an intentional fashion.

Sneaky learning

Some folks think learning must mean book work, reading and writing. “Especially for younger children, learning is more powerful when it’s experiential,” said Steve O’Brien, a child behavior expert and associate professor at Argosy University in Tampa, Florida.

“Do not underestimate the value of play,” O’Brien said. “When children are engaged in play, they are learning.”

Parents are far from helpless against summer’s effect on learning, said education expert and psychologist Jesse McCarthy of Laguna Beach, California. “Apart from parents enrolling children in full-time summer schools and camps, there is something simple that any mom or dad can do to guard against the dreaded brain drain: Actively encourage curiosity. Children learn best when they’re curious,” he said.

Sometimes, that means parents have to break entrenched habits. When a child asks the name of an unfamiliar flower, instead of replying "I don’t know," a parent can better respond with, “Do you want me to take a picture and we can look it up together?” McCarthy said.

Little kids ask “what” questions. Older kids’ curiosity centers on “how” and “why.” He offers a hypothetical conversation: With a son, 13, who encourages recycling, a parent might say, “I hear all about recycling, but I don’t even know what happens when I put a water bottle into the recycling bin. Do you know? I was thinking about looking into the process and maybe even touring a nearby recycling center. You interested in going with me?” It has an added benefit of meeting the child’s “longing for genuine engagement” with parents, McCarthy said.

Parents who embrace summer learning opportunities are apt to develop what Oksana Hagerty, an educational and development psychologist at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, calls "lifelong learning orientations.”

It’s a life-enhancing goal that parents can achieve by being role models whose children see them read, who take genuine interest in what the child reads, who create a learning space in the house and who sets up “clear and realistic” goals, she said.

Teachers at National Louis University kicked off summer with a list of 10 projects that “sneak reading, science and math learning into fun activities” for students in first to eighth grades. Because children have different resources, they included different versions based on how much technology a child can access. For example, kids can make musical instruments, watch videos that teach them to play instruments or download apps that let them “play” and record the show.

Traveling brain builder

“It’s always been important to my family to incorporate lessons into our travels,” said Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief of “The world is an amazing classroom and our travels provide us with an opportunity to have fun exploring together, while also learning various lessons — whether related to history, science or anything else the kids may be learning in school.”

So the Ewing, New Jersey, family, which includes a son, 10, and daughter, 11, visits historic sites like Monticello to see firsthand what would otherwise be a classroom lecture. At home, they visit museums or parks, too.

They learned about a national park they visited through activities and assignments in the Junior Ranger Program, Poirot said. “At first, my kids thought it would be a bit like they were at school, but once they hit the parks and really got exploring, they completely fell in love with the experience. They were so enthusiastic about what they were learning and it was fun for all of us to experience together. They still look for programs wherever we travel,” she said.

O’Brien believes planning ahead enhances travel and learning. When you go to the beach or the park or a new town, have in mind some interesting ideas, facts and questions. Did you know there are X many sea creatures? Wow, how many reptiles did we find today?

Remember, too, he said, that “kids love playful interaction. … It makes the trip very enjoyable and much more intellectually stimulating.” The same principles can be applied in more prosaic places, like the grocery store.

“Most people find that experiential learning sticks a little more," he said. "It provides more meaningful context. … Information can be more efficiently encoded and therefore more efficiently retrieved when you have more meaning around it.”

To reinforce the experiences and so they’ll have a record of what they’ve seen and learned, Whiting's children keep journals when they travel, too.

“I encourage parents to not think about learning as so academic,” said O’Brien. “Children need comprehensive learning; most don’t want more academic learning in the summer. … Motivate curiosity. Make things gamelike and playful and humorous. Problem-solve, plan, strategize, anticipate. Consider cause and effect and what choices lead to. That helps cognitive development. … Keeping the mind engaged keeps it oiled and moving so it will get back on track quickly.”

Tips to boost brain power:

• Libraries are a well-loved tool to combat summer slide and they do a lot to equalize income differences with free programs. Besides borrowing books, one can check out audio books for road trips.

• Evans says local universities that do research on how children learn offer lots of free programs using student teachers, and it’s a “win-win” for learning. He also notes that teachers can provide suggestions for summer reading.

• Many museums, arboretums, aviaries and other venues offer free or reduced-price admission and programs for children during summer, Evans said.

• He encourages families to build home libraries. Many libraries give some books away to make room for others.

• Todd Hodgkinson, an assistant professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, suggests 30 minutes to an hour of learning each day. A sampling of his how-tos includes reading, visiting a museum, doing real-life math “in a purposeful way,” building something that requires math calculations, writing poetry or learning calligraphy. For math games online, he recommends Khan Academy, National Library of Virtual Manipulatives or

• “Take time to ponder and investigate with your kids — backyards, neighborhoods and communities are filled with science and history," said Kate McElvaney, director of education advancement at High Meadows School in Roswell, Georgia. “Rather than forced lessons, provide opportunities to walk and wonder among local treasures, which leads to thinking and possibilities for authentic investigation.”

• Her colleague Jay Underwood said to help children see examples of things they learned at school “at work in the real world.”

• “Using sidewalk chalk, spell out the alphabet on the ground outside in very large letters," said Theresa Bundgaard, owner of Teaching and Learning Stuff, in Phoenix, Arizona. Say a word and have the children spell it by physically moving to each letter. Car travel’s a good time to use math by offering age-appropriate math questions, she said. It’s also a good venue to let kids read aloud.

• For math, certified parenting coach and mother of four Sarah Hamaker suggests cooking together. Following a recipe uses math and reading skills. Folks can boost learning by having the kids shop for groceries, too. She also suggests letting children learn to haggle at yard sales and research in advance the places they’ll visit over the summer.

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