Learning during summer vacation doesn’t have to be a chore


(Rachel Harris/ for The Washington Post)

With constant pressure to have kids do more in school, and do it sooner, parents who spent their own summers playing outside until the streetlights came on might feel compelled to push academics over free play.

Good news: You can do both at the same time.

Keeping your child’s mind sharp in July and August doesn’t have to mean sitting at a table doing work sheets or flashcards. Educators recommend that parents incorporate learning into play and plan fun day trips to give kids a chance to stretch their minds while still enjoying summer’s more relaxed schedule.

“It’s going to be beautiful weather, and parents should take advantage of not having the constraints of formal school,” said Colin Reinhard, a math specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools.

We talked to several local educators and professionals about how parents can slip learning into their kids’ summer vacation without making it seem like a chore.


(Rachel Harris/ for The Washington Post)

Here are some of their suggestions.

Read, read, read, and then read some more

Even the youngest students have suggested summer reading lists. Pat Fege, the language arts coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools, suggests that parents read with their children, both young and old. With high school students, even if you don’t have time to read the whole book yourself, ask your child to recommend a particularly interesting or difficult chapter, then talk to him about what you have read.

Write your way to stronger family ties

For elementary school students, Fege suggests writing letters to relatives, either by hand or e-mail. Have the child use the proper friendly letter format. That means include the date, a greeting, a body and a closing, as well as correct spelling and punctuation.

Older children could interview a relative, asking questions about her own childhood, then write a memory book to give as a present, she said. A bonus: they will get a lesson in family history and have quality time with a grandparent, aunt or uncle. More reluctant writers can get their writing in short doses by making a photo album from a trip or the entire summer, and writing captions to go with each photo.

Venture beyond the exhibits

Most of us have seen the Hope Diamond and dinosaur bones during trips to the Smithsonian, but the museums have so much more to offer.

For tweens, Lynn-Steven Engelke, the director of programs at the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, suggests the forensic anthropology lab at the “Written in Bone” exhibit that is at the National Museum of Natural History through Jan. 6. Students visit stations in the lab to examine bones for clues about life in the Chesapeake Bay region during the 17th century. The lab is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.mnh.si.edu for information.

Engelke recommends the drop-in sessions at the Hirshhorn’s Artlab+, for teens. The hands-on workshops are from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays and from noon to 5 on Saturdays, and have a different focus each day, including broadcasting, visual storytelling, gaming and photography. Visit www.artlabplus.si.edu for information.

Make the beach your classroom

Lindsay Knippenberg, an educator fellow at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggests getting Beachcomber’s Companion, a virtual beachcombing and collection kit that is especially good for elementary school-age children. The kit, which is $16.95 at www.beachcombers
companion.org
, includes 50 waterproof cards with photos of common Atlantic coast invertebrates on one side and facts about them on the other.

For older scientists, Knippenberg recommends the Marine Debris Tracker app for smartphones. It is free and allows teens to log debris they have found along the beach.

Get a jump on college preparations

High school students in any grade can spend part of their summer preparing for college.

If, in the transition to high school, your child didn’t do very well in a subject, he can take the class again between his freshman and sophomore years, says Colleen Ganjian, the founder of DC College Counseling in Arlington. It won’t change the grade on his record, but admissions officials will like to see that he made the effort.

Rising juniors, she says, should focus on preparing for the SAT and/or ACT and try to find a summer activity or a course at a local community college that relates to what they want to study in college. Ganjian recommends that rising seniors try to complete all of their college applications during the summer.

But now is not the best time to take a campus tour, Ganjian said. It is better to go when school is in session to get a feel for the campus.

Get a move on

Patty Swanson, a physical education teacher at Ashland Elementary School in Prince William County, likes inexpensive or free street games to keep kids moving on days when you can’t get to the pool.

Tie a tennis ball to the end of a rope and twirl it around, having your child jump over the rope as it passes. Create an obstacle course with things you have around the garage. Or play a game of tag with old plastic grocery bags. Have the children put bags in their pockets, and the appointed “it” person tries to get as many bags as possible.

Math is all around you

Go to Wheaton Regional Park or Burke Lake Park to ride the train, Colin Reinhard says, and have your child estimate how many passengers it holds, its average speed, or the total number of passengers on a busy day. Ask her to calculate the area (length times width) of the Reflecting Pool during a trip to the Mall, or the volume (length times width times height) of the Lincoln Memorial.

Closer to home, a deck of cards is a great math tool for practicing probability. Ask your child what the odds are of drawing a red card, a diamond or an ace. You can also have him draw two cards and add, subtract, multiply or divide the numbers to reinforce basic math facts.

Make time to practice planning

Summer is a great time to have your child sharpen the planning skills she uses every day in school to finish her work on time or figure out how to get started on, and complete a project, says Kristina Hardy, a neuropsychologist at Children’s National Medical Center in the District.

Have your child come up with a research project about a topic that interests her, such as the solar system, says Hardy. Then use that topic as a jumping-off point to get her thinking about what steps she needs to bring to complete the project, the order in which to take them and how to budget her time. For example, she can plan a trip to the moon and figure out what she would need to take and how long it would take to get there. Trips to the library or a museum to do research can also be planning exercises: How do you get there, how long will you be there, what do you need for the trip?

How do you plan to make summer learning fun for your kids?

Share your ideas by leaving a comment below or by e-mailing localliving@washpost.com with “summer learning” in the subject line.

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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