How to prevent summer learning loss (and still have fun)

What is summer learning loss? Some call it “summer learning loss,” others call it the “summer slide.” But whatever the term you favor, the idea is the same: Without regular practice, new skills and knowledge fade. So many students experience reversals over the extended summer break. The phenomenon has been documented in a number of countries, including Austria, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

How much learning is lost? Studies suggest that kids may lose anywhere from 25-50% of their school-year gains in mathematics. Or — put another way — the average child may lose more than two months’ worth of mathematical knowledge over the summer. Children can backtrack in language skills, too, including reading, writing, and spelling. Younger school children may suffer small setbacks in verbal fluency — i.e., their ability to think of appropriate vocabulary. But overall, losses in reading ability tend to be less dramatic than losses in mathematical ability. Why? It’s probably a reflection of the “use it or lose it” phenomenon. During the summer, kids continue to engage with language. They are less likely to practice their mathematical skills. So how do we prevent summer learning loss? How do we stop summer slide? Some researchers suggest that we make major changes in our schools. They propose lengthening the school year, or replacing the long, summer hiatus with several shorter vacation periods distributed throughout the year. But we don’t have to wait for such changes to help our children. Nor do we have to turn the summer into a time of regimented, structured learning sessions. Here are some suggestions for making the most of the summer — without sacrificing summer fun. 6 evidence-based tips to prevent summer learning loss 1. Get started on a summer reading program, and make sure your child is reading books that are both interesting and challenging. Summer reading is important, but it doesn’t always boost skills. For example, in one study, a summer reading program failed to have any effect on children’s literacy skills. Why? The children who participated got to choose their own books, and they consistently chose books that were too easy for them. So when selecting books, it’s crucial to make sure you’re child is excited by the content. But you also want reading material that will stretch your child’s skills — introduce some new words and ideas. Need help finding the right stuff? Visit your local library and talk with the children’s librarian. And if your child is learning the basics, check out this Parenting Science article about the importance of avoiding books with distracting graphics. 2. Set aside some time to review mathematics concepts. It’s unlikely that most kids will spontaneously practice the sorts of skills that will prevent learning loss in mathematics. And practice really matters. So it’s a good idea to make math review a regular part of your summer. How much time should you spend? It doesn’t have to be a lot. As I note elsewhere, young school kids can learn new facts from daily sessions of just 5 minutes per day. Imposing longer sessions can, in some cases, be counter-productive. And once learners have encoded new facts, they can improve their long-term retention by taking breaks (of several days or more) between review sessions. What about motivation? Here, we have the help of software developers. There are a number of educational computer games and apps that make practice fun. For instance, try the free app, Bedtime Math, aimed at kids under the age of 9. It was tested by researchers, and found to be helpful when used by families on an everyday basis. Or consider the DragonBox math apps. When tested on 7th graders, DragonBox Algebra 12+ helped kids master the concept of algebraic equivalence. In addition, for those kids who started the study with a good grasp of mathematics, game play was linked with subsequent improvements in math performance. There are DragonBox games for younger children too. For instance, DragonBox Numbers helps children aged 4-8 develop an intuitive understanding of numbers through game play. 3. Play “unplugged” number games to help kids sharpen their math skills. Research indicates that young children can improve their intuitive understanding of numbers by playing certain board games. And such intuitions really matter: When kids lack a strong grasp of “how much” different numbers really represent, they perform more poorly in school. You can read more about it (and get instructions for making your own game) here. In addition, young school children can practice their basic addition and subtraction facts by playing the simple — but excellent — board game, “Sum Swamp.” The game is a race, with players rolling dice and performing quick calculations to determine the number of spaces they must move. Finally, I’ve found a number of books for children that help kids visualize mathematical concepts, and some include instructions for mathematical activities and games. See my recommendations in this Parenting Science guide. 4. Develop spatial skills through spatial rotation games and construction play Experiments demonstrate that we can hone strong spatial skills through practice, and better spatial reasoning leads to enhanced performance in math and science. For example, when young school children were asked to practice mental rotation tasks – tasks that required them to predict how two geometrical shapes would look when stuck together – these kids went on to show improvements in their ability to solve basic algebra problems. For ideas on how to encourage spatial play, see my evidence-based articles about tangrams, blocks, and other activities for boosting a child’s spatial skills. 5. Take trips to museums, zoos, and nature sites. But don’t merely attend. Help children enjoy hands-on experiences, and engage in family conversations. Kids learn more from museum experiences when they engage in hands-on activities. They also benefit when parents ask them to interpret what they see. For example, in one study, kids visiting an anthropological exhibit learned more when their parents asked them open-ended questions about the artifacts they encountered. What do you think this tool was used for? What do you think it is made of? How do you think it would feel to sleep on this mat? In another museum-learning study, preschoolers showed more spontaneous focus on numbers and counting after their parents had engaged them in playful number talk and counting games. How many dinosaurs are here? Let’s count together. And after you leave? Help kids consolidate what they’ve learned by asking kids what they remember. As I explain elsewhere, one of the best ways is to encourage children to explain what they have learned. And a recent study reports links between parent-child conversations and retention: The more kids talked about a science lesson with their parents, the more they remembered later on. To learn more about the fascinating effects of explaining things to others, read my article, “How kids learn math and science: Stimulate learning by asking kids to explain.” 6. Choose STEM summer camps that emphasize informal, hands-on learning. Research suggests that summer camps in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) can stoke children’s interest in STEM fields. What makes a great program? Hands-on, activity-based STEM activities…