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Summer Math, Missing in Action

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 12:54 PM

Summer reading programs get top billing in libraries, bookstores and school Web sites this time of year. But math skills disappear at an alarming rate during the months away from school. Where are the summer computational programs?

Students lose about 2.6 months' worth of math skills over the 12-week break, according to a study published in the Review of Educational Research. This loss cuts across income levels, writes author and child psychologist Ruth Peters in USA Today. In contrast, middle income students actually gain in reading performance over the summer. Low-income students lose reading skills, but not as much as they lose in math, Peters says.

Author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events, is partnering with Barnes & Noble for its summer reading program. Where's the big-name celebrity partnership for summer math?

Peters suggests that parents supply interactive books and games, and tutors--for those who can afford them.

The Baltimore-based Center for Summer Learning has an online Mayor's Math Challenge, with "fun math problems" to solve each week for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade, with answer guides for parents.

This newsletter is even guilty of reading bias. You can view it on our very own list of books, comics and magazines for reluctant boy readers. Feel free to share what gets your boy reading at parenting@washingtonpost.com, and I'll add it to the page.

And if you have a suggestion for making summer math fun, send it as well. I'll share helpful Web sites and suggestions next week.

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Year-Round School

Math and other academic skills slip during the summer, and teachers spend four to six weeks reteaching material students have learned but forgotten. The learning loss is greatest among kids of low-income families, who also lose school-provided nutritious meals and adult supervision.

Many school districts have shortened summer by switching to the year-round schooling. The number of students in year-round programs--also called balanced calendar or modified calendar--is still relatively small: 2.1 million in 47 states, according to the National Association for Year-Round Education.

Some parents object to shorter summers, arguing that children need long breaks outside of school to build family traditions and reconnect with nature. "The fact of the matter is children learn outside of the school walls in the summer," says Billee Bussard, who runs the Web site Summer Matters.

In North Carolina, Wake County schools have offered a voluntary year-round schedule for 12 years, Assistant Superintendent Chuck Dulaney told ABC News. But when the district tried to make the program mandatory as a cost-saving measure, parents protested and the district backed down.

The ideal of a slower-paced summer filled with extracurricular learning is appealing. But such learning requires a parent at home or a smorgasbord of day care and summer camps--and the good ones are not cheap. Summer vacation looks more and more like a playground for the well-to-do and a wasteland for those lower down the economic scale.

"Unfortunately," writes Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register, "there is too little public pressure to implement a year-round school calendar that could improve learning, help kids retain information and accommodate working families."

Dulaney thinks year-round opponents should give the option more credit. "I understand what they're saying...but I don't see that playing out," he said. "In the real world, you find families who struggle to find ways to keep their children occupied [over the summer]."

Is year-round school an option in your neighborhood? E-mail your thoughts to parenting@washingtonpost.com and I'll share your comments next week.

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Breast Hectoring

The government wants mothers to breast-feed their babies, and the Department of Health and Human Services is planning a campaign of bully tactics to get them off of formula.

According to the New York Times, the campaign compares using formula to smoking during pregnancy, and it has produced a TV commercial showing a pregnant woman being thrown from a mechanical bull during ladies night at a bar. "You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born," the announcer says. "Why start after?"

The in-your-face nature of this campaign is baffling. Sure, breast milk is better than formula (although Slate's Sydney Spiesel argues that breast milk's benefits are overblown), but there are many women for whom nursing simply doesn't work. When did it join the evil ranks of smoking while pregnant?

If the government believes that formula endangers babies' health, then it needs to start paying for minimum hospital stays and nursing coaches to help new mothers learn the tricky art of breast feeding. And it should institute mandatory paid maternity leave to allow mothers to continue nursing for the recommended six months. Those who return to work need mandatory pumping breaks in designated private rooms and top-of-the-line pumps, paid for by medical insurance. All these things stand between too many new mothers and the ability to breast-feed their infants.

The guilt induced by the new "Breast Police," as a Chicago Tribune editorial calls it, could do an equivalent amount of damage to new mothers' levels of guilt and the anxiety they could pass on to their babies.

"Such tactics are a sucker punch to millions of otherwise exemplary mothers who never embraced breast-feeding as a vocation," writes the Tribune. "Formula may be a pale substitute for breast milk, but it's not poison."

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Hot Tweens

Does your tween have a game under the brutal summer sun this week? Worried he or she will overheat? You're not alone.

Heat exhaustion was the No. 1 among parents of kids age 10-13 in a survey by the National PTA. Of 542 parents, 25 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about their tweens' health this summer, with 35 percent listing heat exhaustion as their top worry.

While younger children get more supervision and older kids have more sense, tweens fall into the gap and are more vulnerable to heat problems, sunburn and too much TV, pediatrician Marianne Neifert told the Associated Press.

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Playgrounds With a Little Kick

Can a playground be too safe? In Great Britain, experts say parents' overprotectiveness can be harmful for kids.

Concerned that children will reject boring playgrounds in favor of railway banks, riverbanks and roadsides, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents -- a nonprofit group whose mission is promoting safety--is calling for play-space design that allow kids to take a few more risks.

"We need to provide play environments so that children can experience risk in a controlled and managed way," the society's David Yearley told the Guardian.

Play is crucial for children, who have a developmental drive to master the cues and rules of social interaction, argues Tim Gill, who is writing a book about growing up in a risk-averse society.

"What psychologists tell us is that those social codes are learnt through play, especially during the middle years of childhood," Gill writes in the Guardian. "And children learn them best when they learn them for themselves, largely (though not entirely) without adult intervention."

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The Joy of Danger

It's no coincidence, Gill says, that the No. 1 book on Amazon UK is called "The Dangerous Book for Boys," a "muck-about manifesto, teaching the cosseted kids of today how to enjoy the kind of rambunctious games which caused their dads and grandpas to graze many a muddy knee," according to the Birmingham Sunday Mercury. (In the United States, the book is number 1,610 and climbing.)

Given that the title appears to promote peril and exclude girls, it's amazing the book ever got published, writes Christopher Middleton of the Daily Telegraph. Instructions include planting a tripwire, building a tree house, deciphering enemy code, and a game called "conkers," in which each player swings a horse chestnut on a string to try to break one held by the opponent

Middleton gave the book to his son, 11, and a friend, 12, who immediately started to fashion a bow and arrow set with a sharp Swiss Army knife. "I had to dig down deep in order to ignore the parental risk-ometer readings that were going off the scale." Middleton also swallowed hard and held back advice on how to make their crude slingshot work better.

"It was hard to resist the nose-poking instincts of the 21st-century parent who wants to make everything perfect."

This hands-off parenting approach would please Gill. "Children," he says, "simply need more time and space away from the anxious gaze of grown-ups."

Still, you might want to refer your boys to our reluctant readers page, for something a little quieter.

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E-Mail Bag: Dawn of the Dad

Last week's newsletter focused on fathers who blog about fatherhood, and several sent new Web addresses for dads to connect with other dads. You can find the updated list here, and send sites I missed to parenting@washingtonpost.com.

The New York Daily News also noticed the rise of the dad-bloggers. "Daddy blogs are emerging as the tool for fathers in the know, sharing what's cool and what's new, from the latest accessory for their stroller to the best car seat for their SUV," writes Brooke Showell.

Washington Post columnist and blogger Joel Achenbach takes a road trip with his daughter and remembers his own father's trip through life.

Finally, Rafael Behr of the Guardian of London laments that while having a child has made him giddy with new love, being a father to her is bad for his career. Middle class men like Behr find that parenthood changes priorities, and society needs to change to keep up, he says. "So it's up to us to change our culture, take time off for school plays, and go home early for bedtime stories, to take the maximum paternity leave available and demand more.... The dads I know don't want careers, we just want a job and a life, and we want to have them at the same time."

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