How do you keep kids' brains busy in the summer? UNT expert has tips

Monday, June 30, 2014 - 15:40

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- The lights are out in the schools for the summer, but how do you keep the wheels turning in your kids' minds while they're at home for a few months?

"Keeping kids' minds engaged is important in warding off 'summer learning loss,' a well-documented phenomenon that can result in children losing up to two months of academic achievement over the summer," said Alexandra Leavell, associate professor in the language and literacy studies program in the University of North Texas College of Education. "Learning doesn't just happen during school, and summer is the time to engage young minds in ways that can reignite curiosity, creativity and joy for learning."

Leavell, who holds a doctoral degree in reading and learning disabilities from the University of Miami, offers these tips for parents to help kids learn during the summer.

  • Follow their lead. "Much of school learning is imposed upon children," Leavell said. "Summer allows both the time and opportunity for kids to learn about things that interest them. You may find your teenaged daughter's interest in metal detecting a bit quirky, but giving her a chance to learn about something important to her will engage her in the research process, require focused information-gathering, and involve a lot of trial and error as she strives for expertise. These skills can transfer to other learning contexts."
  • Keep it simple. If your local museum has a dinosaur exhibit, art exhibit, sculpture garden and IMAX movie, don't try to stuff a five-hour museum marathon into one day, Leavell said. "Less may be more, especially for the younger set. Be attentive to your child's attention span. Give the dinosaur exhibit the full hour it deserves and go home. Once they've become disinterested or overtired, you're wasting time, money and everyone's good humor. And, you run the risk that all they will remember is that museums make parents grumpy."
  • Make it different than school. Don't turn a trip to the zoo or a spontaneous nature walk into a lecture or a chore, she said. "Be a model of genuine curiosity and resourcefulness in finding answers," Leavell said. "Say, 'I wonder if this is a weed or a flower? Let's take a picture and look it up when we get home.' Ask questions, but not to test what they learned at the zoo, rather to engage them in more thinking – 'Why don't giraffes eat meat like other animals do?' If you choose interesting environments, learning will happen."
  • Put them to work. "Busy parents often find it easier to do things for their children," she said. "It's certainly more efficient, but it can also be a missed learning opportunity." If they want cookies, research recipes, ask the kids to write a grocery list, have them pick out the ingredients at the store and enlist their help in baking. "If the cookies turn out less than perfect, resist the temptation to whip up a perfect batch," she said. "Instead, talk about what might have gone wrong, problem-solve and try again. Acknowledging mistakes and learning how to improve upon them is a significant step toward independent learning."
  • There is safety in numbers. "Keeping kids reading during the summer isn't always easy, but forming a Summer Book Club with friends may reduce initial resistance," she said. "The key is to keep it informal and let kids discuss at their own level. Avoid the urge to test their comprehension with prepared questions or worksheets. Answer questions that arise naturally and clarify misunderstandings as they become evident. Don't punish them for not finishing a book; let them talk about what they did read. Welcome genuine opinions, and above all, don't convey that your opinion is more important than theirs is."  
  • Be realistic about media. "Resistance is futile," she said. "Thinking a 'screen-free' summer is best for kids is neither practical nor desirable. Current curriculum standards for language arts now include visual literacy -- being able to understand and interpret information presented in a visual format. Second, video presents information through speech and visual images. For learners who struggle with word recognition, this format frees up their brain to focus on comprehension, and has the added benefit of visuals which can provide context clues to understanding difficult vocabulary. The key is to choose wisely."
  • Rediscover your public library. "If you haven't been to your neighborhood library lately, you may be surprised when you visit. Today's public libraries are not only kid-friendly, they are kid-oriented. In addition, they offer much more than just books to keep kids engaged. Computer games, music and movies still promote learning," she said. Have them ask the librarian for an application for a library card, and give them only as much help as they need to fill it out. "This is a practical literacy skill. Let them choose their own books. Research shows that choice dramatically increases the amount of reading kids and teens do. Don't worry so much about what they read, as the fact that they are reading at all. And while you're there, choose a fun summer read for yourself. What better way to model that learning is a lifelong journey?"

Leavell can be reached for media interviews at alexandra.leavell@unt.edu or 940-565-3397.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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