Marguerite Kelly
Family Almanac

Avoiding the summer slide

QI lost my job in March, but my husband and I realized that I could stay home with the kids if we didn’t have to pay for child care and we cut back on our expenses. This has made summer very happy for me but my kids have gotten really bored.

(Hadley Hooper/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

I thought my 14-year-old daughter would just read vampire chick lit, text her friends and work on her tan, and that the boys, 7 and 11, would play soccer and baseball with their buddies. But that hasn’t happened. It turns out that the families in our neighborhood are in better financial shape than we are, so most of the kids are at the beach, and when they’re not at the beach, they’re at camp.

My kids don’t know what to do without their friends but being without school may be even worse. I’ve just read that children lose academic ground in summertime. Is this really true or is the ‘summer slide’ simply one more urban myth?

AMany children fall behind during the summer, but this usually depends on money more than anything else.

Tests show that poor children lose about two months in math and two to three months in reading, not because they’re dumber than well-to-do kids. This is because they don’t get free lunches in the summer, which cuts back on their nutrition and because they don’t get as much enrichment as their well-to-do classmates.

Although summer school doesn’t help most students, educators say that grade-school children who are involved in the arts do better in middle school, that they offer to help more often and watch less TV, and that any enrichment gives children a slight academic edge by the time they’re in the ninth grade.

If all children received this kind of boost in the summer, their teachers might not have to review old material for six weeks in the fall. But it would be even better if they were enriched year-round.

Enrichment doesn’t have to be pricey or interfere with the lazy pace of summer or involve worksheets or flash cards (ever!). It just needs to be interesting, fun and diverse; it should be woven into the family’s day-to-day activities and, if possible, it should include music, our oldest intelligence. Music stimulates the brain and helps us learn better.

You’ll encourage your children’s scientific curiosity if you follow their interests at the zoo, not yours, even if they want to see the insects and the snakes, and if you take a magnifying glass on your walks in the woods, so they can examine rocks and worms and buttercups and see things they’ve never seen before. To learn more about geometry, however, just point out the triangles, rectangles and circles in every geodesic dome that you see.

The unit prices and sell-by dates at the supermarket will teach your children how and why money and time are important, and cooking will explain weights, measures and fractions better than anything else.

Let each child make at least one dish for dinner every week and make the Saturday morning breakfast once a month, while the other two set the table and clean up. The children will learn about nutrition and neatness if the cook plans the menu and everyone votes on the tastiest, healthiest, neatest breakfast. The prize: a family breakfast at an inexpensive restaurant once a month or once a season because children are cheerier in the morning and breakfast costs less than other meals.

You can stretch your children’s vocabulary by substituting precise words for the ones they know and by playing Words With Friends, a free Scrabble app by Zynga, but reading will turn them into writers better than anything else. Even four to five books can prevent the summer slide you’re heard about, but eight books will make an even greater difference, especially if they’re exciting and well-written. Top of the list: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (Running Press; $19). It’s better than any of today’s vampire books, and the illustrations by Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac and the heavy stock make it one of the most beautiful.

You need to encourage exercise, too, particularly in the summer, when children often gain twice as much weight as they do in winter. To keep your children trim year-round, lay Twister on the porch to encourage a few jumps as they pass by and splurge on a portable game called Tenniz (Zume; $119). It teaches the rudiments of tennis, but it’s slower, smaller and can be set up quickly.

You can even teach your children the niceties of life if the whole family turns off its iPods, iPads and iPhones at the dinner table every night. Please do.

8 Send questions about parenting
to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns here. Her next chat is scheduled for Aug. 23.

 
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