The Home Team Advantage: Beware of the “Summer Slide”

Snapshot 2014-08-13 23-20-24We have reached the time during summer break when kids are bored and many parents struggle to find ways to entertain them until school starts again. This seems counterintuitive to me. It has been well established that American students have slipped in the international education rankings. As a result, the Common Core State Standards were created in order to better prepare our children for college and careers in a global economy. We are constantly demanding that school systems and teachers do more with less. But they can’t go it alone. It’s time for families to make some additional adjustments and raise the standards at home as well. Instead of filling free time with meaningless activity, why not use some of it to prepare students for the challenges they will face under the new system?

Parents are a child’s most effective teacher. We need to find time in our busy schedules to build on the information our children learn at school and bring these lessons to life at home. This begs the question…

What is the responsibility of parents in preparing their children for success in the 21st century?

Summer Enrichment Helps Prevent Learning Loss
Summer vacation always seemed like a mixed blessing to me. On one hand, it’s the perfect opportunity for kids to take time away from their studies – time to play and explore, time to observe and experience the natural world around them, and time to “just be kids”. On the other hand, too much time spent away from a structured environment can result in learning loss, sedentary habits and other problems. According to the National Summer Learning Association:

• All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer and typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004).

• Students can lose two months of grade level equivalency in math skills over the summer months. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains (Cooper, 1996).

• Children lose more than academic knowledge over the summer. Most children—particularly children at high risk of obesity—gain weight more rapidly when they are out of school during summer break (Von Hippel et al, 2007).

• Parents consistently cite summer as the most difficult time to ensure that their children have productive things to do (Duffett et al, 2004).

Nature as Context for Learning
With summer break drawing to a close, now is the perfect time to fill idle time with activities that will ease children back into learning mode. You don’t need expensive programs or a degree in education to create meaningful learning experiences at home…and it doesn’t have to be summer. There are so many ways to turn after school or weekend family time into a teaching moment. Nature has proven to be a great context for learning and it’s also the perfect way to get kids outside and active. Once you get started, I think you (and your children) will find it very rewarding…and fun!

Simple Ideas for Year-round Family Enrichment

Start a Family Book Club
The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a collaborative effort among dozens of foundations, lists summer learning loss as one of the three major obstacles to reading proficiency at the end of 3rd grade. Children (especially low income children) are losing ground at an alarming rate and the negative consequences reach far beyond elementary school. In fact, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “one in six children who are not reading proficiently in 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers”.

I have found my own children were far more likely to “do as I do”, not just “because I said so”. Thus, it is important to encourage family reading time and also important that children see their parents reading along with them.

So, pick a topic and get started. Find beginning readers for the little ones and more in depth materials for your older children. Set a time frame to complete the reading assignment and reconvene to discuss your findings. Then you’ll be ready for a family field trip to personalize the learning process. This brings the topic of their assignment into the realm of their real-life experience.

Keep in mind, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Create a program that works for your family and your schedule…so long as everyone is reading and engaged in the process. I think you’ll find that these sessions will open up new lines of communication that will not only promote good reading habits, but also enable parents to instill positive family values as well.

Family Field Trips
A family outing to the zoo or a local park not only creates happy memories and strong bonds between parents and their children, but this special time can also can become an extended learning experience with a little forethought before you go. Call a family meeting (possibly at the dinner table) to plan your field trip. Be sure to get the input of each family member (even the little ones) to learn more about his or her interests. Then, make a plan. Once you have decided on your destination, have everyone do some research and reading beforehand. Use you imagination. Go online or visit the library to find books, maps or articles that relate to your outing. Even young children can participate. Older children or parents can help younger children find age-appropriate materials and explain more advanced concepts to jumpstart their reading comprehension. Learning how to access useful and accurate information is an important skill they will need for success in school and beyond. This will also promote strong bonds between siblings that provide them with immeasurable benefits throughout their formative years and even into adulthood.

Once the day of the field trip has arrived, be sure to provide ample time for spontaneous discovery and play. And by all means, take your electronic devices along…but have children use them to expand their world, not insulate them from it. Technology is a tool, not the evil babysitter. Teach your children how to use digital cameras to record their observations. Tuck a tablet or smart phone in your backpack. It’s a great way to take notes or learn more about things you discover along the way. And remember, using technology is not intuitive (children won’t automatically know how to use it properly); it is a learned skill that requires adult guidance and supervision to produce positive learning experiences.

Create an Eco-journal
People throughout history have kept written accounts of their experiences in nature. From primitive inscriptions on cave walls to the detailed journals of early explorers like Lewis and Clark, John Muir and Charles Darwin, detailed descriptions of their experiences have made an incalculable contribution to many scientific principles we know and still rely upon today.

With a topic as broad as the natural world, eco-journals lend themselves to many different forms of creative expression. Keeping a nature journal is also an excellent way to for students to hone their writing skills and begin to think critically about the world they live in. Young naturalists may start out by noting simple drawings of their observations. Later, they can add detailed descriptions and tell about their experiences. As their reading abilities improve, they can learn to research and record additional factual information to support their perceptions. Finally, as they develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, they will begin to form opinions about the world around them. All of these writing activities are excellent practice for when they return to the classroom. Be sure to bring your eco-journals on family field trips!

Adopt a Cause and Volunteer
Just as learning is a progressive process and basic concepts are needed to understand more complicated subject matter, the same is true of learning about nature. Environmental education is best understood through experimentation and hands-on experiences. First, children need to experience and learn about the natural world in order to care about it. (See my earlier blog “A Sense of Place”) Once they do, it is interesting to note that children are quite willing and enthusiastic to become stewards of the environment and active participants in green initiatives. At this point, make a family decision to get involved in a cause and volunteer your time together.

Remember, you don’t have to live on a farm or near the park to learn about nature or get involved in the green movement. In fact, some of the most innovative “green” ideas are being tested in urban areas where space is limited and the need is greatest. One way budding eco-journalists can really make a difference is by recording (and reporting) the effects of human activities on the environment within their own neighborhoods. It’s already happening in cities all over the world. So, join in! Your children could eventually provide valuable information to environmentalists who are looking for ways to minimize our impact on the environment.

And it is here that we arrive at our intended destination – learning brought to life – raising children who are prepared to enter adulthood armed with the knowledge and skills they need to live healthy and successful lives.

Isn’t that what every parent wants for their children?

Oh yes, and before you know it, the only “summer slide” you’ll need to worry about will be watching your home team at the ball park.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and thanks for reading.


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