How to prevent summer "brain drain"

Discover ways to keep your kids from forgetting much of what they learned during the school year.

Listen for a moment and you’ll hear a collective sigh of relief as kids across the city plunge wholeheartedly into the relaxed rhythm of summer, letting thoughts of schoolwork retreat far into the recesses of their minds.

But for many concerned parents, these months represent a time when kids may forget a lot of the knowledge they have gained over the school year. And research shows that these fears may be warranted – three years ago, researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Tennessee and John Hopkins’s University found that children from all income levels lose approximately two months of math skills over the summer and kids from lower income families also lose significant reading skills. (Children from middle class families actually make gains in reading, probably because these families tend to put a lot of emphasis on this skill).

But Tami Zuckerman, who has taught kindergarten to Grade 6 students at Springdale Elementary School in D.D.O., says there are many easy ways for parents to encourage retention, especially in reading and math, over the summer months. And it doesn’t have to be designated official “school learning time” or include workbooks.

Keep kids reading

Instead, she urges families to make reading a priority — from bedtime stories for little ones to purchasing an e-reader if it helps a teen get excited about books. “Whether it’s on a page or a screen, as long as they are reading, it’s good,” she says. Families can also take advantage of the summertime story hours offered by many libraries and community centres (check out the calendar on the main page of our website). These events not only promote literacy skills but also remind children of the importance of sitting still, listening and sharing observations in a polite way.

Although many parents worry about the amount of time children spend in front of a screen, Zukerman notes that the Internet can be a wonderful educational resource, especially for children who are just learning how to read. One of her favourite sites is www.starfall.com, which offers alphabet and reading games as well as animated online books. The site is free and offers tips for parents about how to encourage literacy skills. Zuckerman also likes the reading and math games on www.pbskids.org. (The CBC’s site www.cbc.ca/kids also includes many educational games.)

Zuckerman also tells parents not to overlook the potential teaching power lurking in their smart phones, iPod touches and iPads. “There are all kinds of apps for literacy and math out there that are very engaging” she says. To help families make a selection, Zukerman suggests visiting the site www.bestkidsapps.com, run by two bloggers who test and reviews educational apps.
Greg Scruton, who teaches computers and mathematics at Trafalgar School for Girls, says the best way to avoid losing acquired math skills is to have young people do something tangible in order to solve real-life problems.

“I learned my fractions and ratios by building a dock,” he says. “All the lumber (in Quebec) is still in imperial units, so you really have little choice but to use fractions as everything is 3 1/2 inches, and 32 3/8 inches.” So Scruton urges parents to help their children build something this summer; it can be something as small as a toy box or planter, or as big as a tree house or garden shed. Whatever it is, just make sure the kids are taking the measurements!

Don’t forget about board games

If your child isn’t interest in building per se, Scruton suggests cooking or baking as other great ways to learn about ratios and fractions. He also says that learning by actually doing a task helps children build confidence. “It is very empowering for a student to apply what they have learned in math to solve problems by doing a real project, especially when it is (or becomes) important to them.”

Finally, both Scruton and Zukerman encourage families to pull out such classic board games as Monopoly, Risk, backgammon and chess. All these games require players to use math skills and learn strategy, while having plenty of fun. And that’s a win-win proposition for parents and kids.