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Tips for preventing summer 'brain drain'

Keep your kids from slipping academically this summer with some ideas that aren't nearly as tedious as they might expect.


Updated for 2019


No more pencils! No more books!

That sounds great to most kids. But after recent news reports about brain drain — how much children’s learning backslides over the summer — it’s not a nice thought for many parents.

At the same time, we’re human and remember how much we loved the summer and the freedom of doing pretty much nothing. So, how can kids get the lazy summers of their dreams without requiring an academic intervention in the fall? How can we make sure to sneak in skills kids need without making their lives miserable with flash cards, worksheets and books they don’t ever want to read?

Research has shown that the biggest learning loss over the summer is in math. Odds are good that your kid is not going to want to solve arithmetic problems on paper this summer, but she or he may jump at the chance to use those skills for something else: board games.

“Having a board-game night on a regular basis is a really good option,” said Dan Finkel, the founder of Math for Love, a Seattle organization with the goal of changing how math is taught and learned. He recommends some obviously math-oriented games like the 24 Game, but thinks the old classics like Sorry, Yahtzee and Monopoly are just as useful for keeping math minds sharp, as well as the ThinkFun puzzle game Rush Hour.

“Those kinds of games that just involve a kind of regular and playful exposure to numbers and (thinking) about mathematical operations are super-useful and, more than that, it’s fun.”

“Frankly, even games that people don’t necessarily think about as being math games, explicitly — any game of strategy involves the kind of ‘if-then’ thinking that mathematical argument relies on: If I do this, then what will they do?” said Finkel, citing chess, backgammon and checkers as some good, widely available choices for beefing up kids’ math ability during vacation. (Finkel’s group has developed the math-focused board games Prime Climb and Tiny Polka Dot.)

Other ways to enhance numeracy are by simply shopping together and checking out prices, cooking according to a recipe, or doing other projects that require measuring, from, say, making a costume to creating a bookcase, said Finkel. Puzzles and brain teasers are pretty entertaining for many kids and are another great option for when kids are bored.

But, wait — bored? Is that ever a goal? Yes, indeed, according to parent educator Jean Rogers, who is screen-time program manager at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and also heads the Children’s Screen Time Action Network.

“One mistake that can be made over the summer is that parents feel kids have to have screen time, running structured material for the school year, so they don’t have that brain drain, when realizing being bored is developing those brain skills — it’s really important for kids to be bored,” said Rogers. “They become resourceful, they become cooperative with each other.”

She also offers some advice on how a family can go about making sure screens — whether they’re tablets, smartphones or TVs — don’t take over to fill the void when school is out.

“A good way to start is to have a family brainstorm session about it so that everyone is discussing it rather than the rules just coming down,” said Rogers, who is the author of the book “Kids Under Fire: Seven Simple Steps to Combat the Media Attack on Your Child.”

Not only will kids feel good that they’ve been part of the process, said Rogers, but they’ll give parents their ideas for activities that they’ll truly enjoy, which will leave less time for parent-child battles over endless video games and apps.  

As far as summer reading goes, local library branches and bookstores (namely, Third Place Books and Half Price Books) are on it, making daily reading into a game and offering readers prizes, too.

At the Seattle Public Library, grade-school kids can get a game sheet that leads to a prize after 10 days of reading for 20 minutes. For middle school and high school students, SPL  offers Teen Book Bingo, which includes fun categories like “Read a Childhood Favorite” and read a book featuring “a non-human character.”

The King County Library System, with branches all over the area, offers games and prizes for readers as well to help make all that learning a little extra fun.

So, summer doesn’t have to drain your kid’s brain, since there are ways to fill it and still have fun.

[Looking for more kid-friendly activities? Download our app and discover our customizable events calendar. Filter by child ages, location, free events and more.]

Jillian O'Connor is a Seattle-based writer and blogger at jillconsumer.com

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