The Summer Slide

Ahh, Summer Slide-reducing, avoiding and out-smarting it

The Summer Slide.  It sounds like fun, doesn’t it? A water park ride, maybe a new dance.  But it’s not. It’s something more insidious, lurking and skulking around our plans for a carefree break from school.  It is one more thing for parents to worry about.  Summer Slide refers to the loss of academic skills that happen over the summer break.    I mean really, we (teachers, parents and kids) are ready for that summer break.  A break from homework, from book reports, from math sheets, from standardized tests, from any tests. AND NOW WE HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT THE SUMMER SLIDE?!?

It’s not fair. . . but it’s there.

Math suffers the most consistently from the slide.  Kids lose about two months of math skills over the 10-12 week break. Teachers spend 4-6 weeks at the start of the new school year just trying to recapture those skills.

Reading is a mixed bag.  Research shows that low-income students lose more than two months of reading skill while middle-income students actually make slight gains.

Honestly, I can’t find much data on loss in writing skills, but given the complexity involved in penmanship, spelling, grammar, punctuation, idea development, etc., I am sure the loss can be substantial.

There are certain groups of kids who are a bit more at risk. The greatest risk IS for children in lower-income homes.  When working parents cannot afford childcare or summer programs, their children are stuck locked in the house or apartment all day. This can be similar for parents on welfare who lack the resources (transportation, safety) to get out. And let’s not forget those teens and tweens of working parents – kids old enough to resist week after week of daycare camps, but not old enough to hold a job.  For kids who do not have a schedule of activities or at least the freedom to get out, the summer is often spent watching television, playing video games and surfing the net.  Children with too much downtime are most at risk for losing academic skills over the summer.

Of course, lots of other kids will have opportunities to stretch their brains. Some kids will go off to camp, sports activities and enrichment courses.  Others may simply stay home, but with someone who can take them to the pool, the library or the park.   There is lots of learning happening when kids are swimming, playing, exploring, gardening and even helping with chores.  And learning outside of the classroom is great “real life” learning.

Still, that math slide is real and the reading slide should be considered (and I always worry about writing). So how do we find some fun activities (because we want to be the FUN PARENT over summer)? Math sheets over summer just feel wrong. We hate the thought of forcing reading.  And most kids find a writing assignment to be boring.

But summer is about making memories, so let’s make some while using some math, reading and writing skills.  I will start with strategies for kids on summer break with an adult at home, then move on to strategies for kids who are “self-supervising” during the day.

There is a lot of math in everyday adventures if we just remember to use them.

  • When gardening, plants must be spaced a certain distance apart to accommodate their diameter of growth.  Give a child a ruler or yardstick and have them measure out the distance between the plants and the estimated diameter of the mature plant.  Have them mark their planting spots with craft sticks.
  • Hey, the pool opens at 9:00am; the kids get up at 7:30.  You get up at 7:00.  After feeding them breakfast, you have two hours of chores to get done before you can head to the pool.  If the kids help, then it is only one hour of chores.  Put a clock at the breakfast table, practice telling time and estimate when you might be headed to the pool.  Do clock activities like this all summer to plan events and make a schedule.
  • Cook from recipes.  It involves measuring, counting and planning. Halve recipes, double recipes.  Cooking is great practice for math, reading and planning projects (needed for school projects).
  • Put out small cookies, pretzels, crackers, raisins or whatever small item for a snack or treat. Have the kids count them, and then divide them up evenly. Ask how many each child got.  Were there any leftover?  (Those are yours.)  Quickly (before it gets boring), state the equation for what they figured out, “40 raisins divided up for four kids is 10 raisins per kid.”  Just go with any conversation that ensues from this.
  • Bigger kids, bigger projects-Have them measure a room and determine how much paint would be needed to paint it. Have them find the distance to some attraction they are interested in seeing and determine how long it would take to get there and how much gas would be needed. Give them a budget for the summer and have them come up with several plans that fit within the budget.

Reading can be much easier to support . . . unless you have a reluctant reader (Kelly, you don’t have to worry about this section because you have one of the bookgirls). Summer reading should be “reading for pleasure,” but what to do if you have a kid who does not seem to find any pleasure in reading.

  • Join your library’s summer reading program anyway.  There is such a variety of books, magazines, music and videos, as well as activities.  Kids can usually find something to hold their interest.  Non-fiction draws some kids in much more easily than fiction.  For reluctant readers, look for books or magazines with strong picture content.  If the pictures are intriguing enough, they may be drawn into the text to find out more. If they glom onto a video, go find the book about it.  Let them read below their grade level. It feels less intimidating and they are READING.
  • Magazines are ok.  They can be great actually.  Short articles, lots of pictures, tons of topics to choose from.
  • Don’t look down upon cartoon and comic books.  Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes both have humor that appeals to older elementary age and well into teen years.  Zits is great for teens.  The story lines are short and there is lots of picture support.  This can be very helpful to the reluctant reader or kids with reading disabilities.
  • And don’t be a snob about “dumb” books.  Captain Underpants may not be high art, but it is appealing to a certain group kids (when nothing else is). Just chant your mantra “reading for pleasure, reading for pleasure.”
  • And if you want your child exposed to more sophisticated fair, then read to him.  You can read to children well into middle school.  So he may be reading Captain Underpants on his time, but you can read Harry Potter or a Magic Treehouse to him.  This can keep him exposed to a level of literature he might not pick up himself.
  • On road trips, have billboard contests where you are looking certain words.  Hunt for license plates from each state.  These little bits of reading encourage the ability to scan text quickly which is needed some times.
  • Don’t forget to read for YOUR own pleasure.  Model the habit you want your child to have – a love of reading. Stop daily to read something YOU want to read. Make it the reading period where everyone reads something.

Unless your child likes to write (and some do), keep writing demands short and sweet.

  • Each day (or a few days a week), have your child draw a picture of something special that happened that day (or that week).  This can be fun because “special” is in the eye of the beholder. The drawing and coloring is good for visual motor skills.  Once the picture is done, have her write a sentence (just one) at the bottom describing the scene.  Make some lines to write on for younger writers. Simply take dictation for pre-writers. Eager writers may have to work on an adjoining page.  Have the child write her name neatly and date the work (even the pre-writers can try).  Make a scrapbook of these pages for the summer.  You can add photo pages and other mementos as well, but the focus should be the pictures and writing.
  • Plan a picnic or other fun excursion and have the child write a few invitations to friends for the event.
  • Thank you notes are a good habit.  A picture and a few words can be encouraged for younger or more challenged writers.  At our house, we take a picture of the gift in the arms of the recipient and write the thank you by e-mail so the picture is attached.  Typing is fine (see below), unless you are very old-fashioned on the manners thing.
  • Word processing is increasingly a critical academic skill, so some keyboard practice can be useful at any age from kindergarten on up.  There are good programs for this, many with a game-like format.  Ten minutes of keyboard practice several times a week can be quite helpful and even fun if they like the keyboarding game.
  • For children who love to write, have them write plays, short stories or poems.  Plays are great fun to act out and give other kids a chance to do some extra reading.

Ok, but what if you are a working parent who will have children (typically teens and some tweens) home “self-supervising.” Don’t feel a need to defend yourself.  I get it.  The Queen is a teenager now and does not want to be over-scheduled.  (I, on the other hand, will be over-scheduled as usual as I try to balance work and parenting.) So she will have the pleasure and privilege of self-supervising some times, but I will also simply have requirements.  She knows her education is of extreme importance for her rather lofty life goals, so she is not unwilling (however, she is also not thrilled about summer assignments either).

The Queen wants some days that she can sleep in and eat popcorn for breakfast.  I am willing to let her make some of those decisions, but am loathe to think of her lounging around noodling away on the internet until her brains shrivels up into a little raison and rolls out of one ear.  So there will be some weeks of scheduled activities, some volunteer work at a hospital I also work at, and some synchronizing of activities with friends.  Our county provides a free pass to the parks and recreational centers to all youth.  There will be some required chores (because if I am earning the income, she can do some housework).  And I will seek ways to limit the limitless internet. (I love the mom who changed the password on the wi-fi and left a list of chores to be done in order to get the new password released.)

For math practice:

  • See the above list because some of these things work fine without adults around.
  • If money is tight at your house (and even if it is not), give them the food budget and have them search the grocery sights for good deals.  If you do not have internet access at home, have them use the grocery fliers in the mail.
  • Recipes are still great practice as long as you trust them to cook when you are not home.  Maybe they can even cook dinner a few times a week.  This involves measuring, estimating, even pre-planning the menu to make a grocery list since a parent will do the shopping.  And if they clean up, you might have the energy to take them out for ice cream.
  • Go to some of the math websites, such as Khan Academy (which has added a NASA space division) and ixl.com (ixl.com as a monthly fee, but it is not much for a summer of materials).  Set some ground rules for doing a certain number of minutes each week. Get excited (or at least interested).  Do some math with them. If you hate it, they will feel sanctioned to hate it as well.

For reading:

  • Get into the summer reading program.  Libraries are open on the weekends and some have evening hours on at least some days. At our house, the only ways you can get to the amusement park is to pay for it yourself or to earn it through the summer reading program. I flex on other things, but that rule works well for us so I keep it in place.
  • If your child wants to see a movie, ask them to read the book first and tell you about it.  Then you can compare the book to the movie.  Some movies can be rented or found online if they have been out for awhile.
  • Require research into desired activities.  If they have to be on the internet, give them some things to find out for outings or vacations.
  • REQUIRE some reading. Yeah, we hate to force it, but reading is a huge predictor of academic success so . . . some ground rules are strongly encouraged.  The Queen is not an avid reader (she is an avid artist, but not a reader), however I will be requiring a book a week for summer (she has some academic goals that require this sort of ability). That’s nothing for the avid readers (who can race through a novel a day during down time), but will be a task for the Queen. Even for kids without lofty goals, reading is essential.  If your child is dyslexic, have them “read” a book-on-tape once a week.  It is important to practice literacy skills, even if it is not through traditional reading.
  • I know you are busy and tired, but require some reading of yourself if you do not already make the time. Again, model the behavior you want to see. Once the habit is in place, it is very relaxing.

For Writing

  • You may think it is harder to have great memories while sitting at home, but for some kids this is a time of great independence. They are proud of their new-found independence and may want to draw/write about it.  Encourage journaling (it might be good to read about what actually happens when you are not home). Just the cooking alone may make for some hysterical memories/learning experiences.
  • Read a poem together (at dinner the night before), pick it apart, then have them write one of their own inspired by the work while you are at work.   For girls, try something like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman.  There is whimsy in Shel Silverstein’s work  which can inspire whimsy in children.  For the young athlete try Casey at the Bat.  For some other options, check this site

You can make poetry a reading activity.  Have them read a poem or short story, then draw the illustrations.  Ogden Nash’s poem, Adventures of Isabel, would be great for that.

While reducing summer slide is important, you also cannot force too much work on some kids.  It ceases to be fun.  Shoot for no more than an hour a day total (unless your kid is just loving it).  I am sure some parents can aim for more, but it will sour everyone’s mood if this becomes a fight (then nothing will get done).  The idea is to try the above strategies and see what seems fun enough to do repetitively.  Cooking is often a winner and requires both math and reading.

Try not to forget exercise.  If your kids are stuck at home without a lot of freedom to roam (Look!! A little poem), try to find a way to have them get some active play or exercise in the evening.  Encourage simple meal planning and cooking as one of their chores (even if it is just sandwiches), then go to the park with your picnic dinner.   If your children have been at home all day, but did not do the expected academics, go picnic anyway.  Then read together that evening.  Sneak some math in. Plan tomorrow’s meals (“how much rice will you need? How much water will go in the pot?).  Keep encouraging and modeling, but don’t fight about it.  Do a little stealth parenting and find another way in.

There are some great apps for promoting academic skills with fun activities.  NPR covered a bunch of them in this article.

If you need information or encouragement, there is an organization, the National Summer Learning Association, devoted to reducing the summer slide.  This site gives some resources that are available in different parts of the country.

If you have kids self-supervising home all summer with no options for extra activities, and you would like them to have more opportunities:

  • Check with your school district.  They want to reduce summer slide as well, so often implement summer programs for kids in higher risk neighborhoods.
  • Check your local Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  They have put in a program specifically targeting summer skills loss.   They offer extremely affordable options.

Keeping skills in place offers great advantages to your kids.  It is important to keep in mind that practice is important.  However, summer should spark our creative juices, math and reading can be incorporated in many activities.  Also, writing about our adventures provides a memoir that can be enjoyed for years.

Have fun.