Have you heard about “summer slide”? Psst, it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds because it has nothing to do with water parks or playgrounds. And it’s not something any parent wants their children to ride.
The first time I heard the term “summer slide” was in an end-of-year conference with my son’s second-grade teacher. She was reviewing his academic progress throughout the year and explaining how pleased she was with his growth, but cautioned us about not letting him fall victim to “summer slide.”
I’m certain my face showed confusion because I was mentally flipping through pictures of what that could mean–Is it a backward fall off a slide? Is it a face full of water on a water slide? Is it friction burn from a slip & slide? None of the above, in fact. Summer slide is the phrase used by educators to describe the slide backwards that many children can take in reading and math skills over the summer. (See, not a ride you want your children to take.) Children learn academic and social skills throughout the school year through lessons, class activities, and homework assignments. But over the summer they may not use as many of those skills. As a result, their mastery of those skills can slide to a lower level.
“When the last bell of the year sounds and the school doors close, many students struggle to keep their brains engaged without access to enrichment or educational opportunities and activities,” says Stephanie Arnold a teacher in the Mohonasen Central School District. “It’s a shame because each year students make great academic gains and experience such an influx of information during the school year only to lose a large percentage of those gains when they turn off their brains over the summer.”
There’s plenty of research about summer slide that show children who abstain from reading over the summer can actually regress two to three months back in terms of reading level. That means your child could start a new school year in September and be back at the reading level she was at in April of the previous year. A study done by a Duke University professor also found a large downward trend for students in math computations and spelling. And because younger children aren’t yet equipped to retain as much new information for as long as older kids, summer slide is steepest for them. Additionally, summer slide can happen to even the brightest kids and it doesn’t need to be over a long period of time either–even a couple of weeks away from reading can soften skills.
Learning all of this made me race to hit the panic button. But once I slowed down to process the information I realized that summer slide actually makes a lot of sense. There are plenty of situations, not just academics, where this is evidenced. For example, if your child plays the piano but doesn’t touch it for three months it’s likely his skills will have declined compared to someone who continued to practice playing the piano. The same can be said for children who take a break from a sport, ballet lessons, etc.
The good news, however, is that studies also suggest that summer slide can be minimized or even reversed through activities or programs that engage students. So, in a nutshell, we need to keep kids learning throughout the summer. But don’t worry, summer learning doesn’t need to feel like work and it doesn’t need to replace all the other fun activities that are synonymous with summer, like swimming, camping, vacationing, sleepovers, bike rides, etc. There are a lot of different ways to reinforce your children’s academic skills while they are out of school and still have a summer filled with fun and relaxation.
“The key is to keep kids active and thinking, and to avoid the ‘couch potato syndrome,’” says Arnold. “Instead of getting caught up in the web of video games, television, and other devices that can suck them in for hours on end, I encourage my students to find a balance. Sure, they can watch tv, but then they need to also engage in some simple but stimulating activities to keep their minds fresh.”
What can parents do to minimize summer slide?
There are plenty of fun activities that your child, and even your whole family, can engage in that will encourage learning all summer long. Your kids might not even realize that they are learning while also having fun. Here are a few ideas to get your creative ideas flowing:
Family Book Club
Okay, so your kids will know they are learning with this activity but it won’t seem like such a chore if the whole family is reading the same book and discussing it together. (Some modification will need to be made for younger kids.) Set aside time each day for family (or individual) reading. Set a book completion date and plan to host a book discussion that day. You can make it a special event by serving your family’s favorite snacks or desserts to nosh on during the discussion. Or, host the book club as a picnic in the backyard or park. If a movie was made from the book, you could watch it together then discuss the differences between the book and the movie. “What’s great about a family book club is that it shows kids that reading continues into adulthood and it brings families together and ignites conversations,” says Rhonda Livingston a library media specialist at the Malta Community Library. You can also replace book reading with magazine articles, plays, a section of the daily newspaper, poetry, etc. Did you know? Reading poetry is a great way for younger children to improve phonemic awareness skills as it often incorporates rhyme, and for older children poetry is a way to improve fluency.
Discover new places & ideas
Try to carve out some time this summer to take a family trip to explore new places and activities. But, before randomly picking a place, have your kids research the location. (Psst: They still have to read what their Google searches pull up!) Have them figure out how long it will take to get there (by car, train, etc.), what attractions and activities are there, how much it will cost (travel expenses, hotels, restaurants, admission to events), etc. An added bonus: If you are driving to your destination, listen to books on tape. Studies show that even listening to someone read can help youngsters sharpen their comprehension and vocabulary skills.
This activity also works for helping your children discover new projects or activities. For example, my daughter’s 12-year old friend Addison wanted to raise chickens in the backyard. Her parents said she had to put together a presentation that explained why she wanted to raise chickens, the benefits, the challenges, the cost, the time commitment, etc. “I was surprised at the amount of research she put into this project,” says Antoinette, Addison’s mother. “She had visuals to go along with her presentation, made scrambled eggs with farm fresh eggs and store-bought eggs for a taste comparison, and she even did a cost analysis for the expense of the coop, food, and baby chicks and the revenue from the sale of the extra eggs. I didn’t think she’d go through with the research but she actually had fun, learned a lot and, well, her presentation was rather persuasive so we now have chickens.”
Incorporate math & reading into shopping & cooking
Do you have aspiring chefs in your family? If cooking is an interest to your kids have them read through cookbooks and plan family meals. They can write out their own grocery lists and peruse store flyers and coupon booklets for find sales. At the store, let your children refer to their lists and locate the items. In the kitchen have them read the recipes and measure out the ingredients. An extra bonus: Set a budget for each meal. Give your children a calculator to use in the store to add up their items, subtract coupons, and discover if they’ve stayed within budget.
Put away the electronics and turn off the TV for family board game night. Some games, such as monopoly and chess, encourage math and reasoning skills, and many games encourage reading and counting. Word games, such as Apple to Apples, helps improve vocabulary. Don’t forget about crossword puzzles and other activity workbooks. Do just the opposite on a different night by turning the electronics back on and encourage your children to navigate through interactive books and educational apps that address phonics and early reading skills. (There are lots of websites that offer free reading- and math-related apps.)
There isn’t one summer learning activity that is better than another. In fact, there are countless activities that can help improve your child’s summer learning. The key is to tap into your child’s interests and find ways to incorporate learning into those. Remember, a big part of summer learning is exploring and trying new things. So, if one learning activity doesn’t work for you or your family, that’s okay. Move onto another one!
Tara Mitchell is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She lives in Malta, NY with her husband and two children. She’s an avid collector of vintage, fine and fashion jewelry and enjoys throwing themed parties.