The final bell rings, the school doors open, and a cheering throng of sweaty, heady kids races out of the school building and into the freedom of summer, their papers and pocket folders flung high in the warm air above. American kids kind of lose their minds each June — and continue to do so through July and August. The average U.S. student experiences about 2.6 months of grade-level losses in math computation skills, and, while middle-
income students experience a slight gain in reading performance during the summer months, low-
income children lose, on average, about 2 months of reading performance. For African American children, whose average scores on the 2012 SATs were lower than every other ethnic and racial group in the nation, this summer slide is even longer.

We can maximize our children’s cognitive potential this July and August — without ruining these lazy, hazy days with skill and drill overkill. Summer learning, like all learning, should be as pleasurable as a good paperback, a hammock and a tall glass of sweet tea. Use TheRootDC’s three-part series to avoid the summer slide and guide your child up the ladder of academic success.

Catching fireflies in Rock Creek Park, casting a line at Fletcher’s Boat House, clam-digging in Ocean City: These summer pleasures all provide rich opportunities for cognitive development. In part three of the series, we’ll see how warm weather fun can help your child’s brain grow. In part two, we’ll examine ways to prepare your children for the science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) initiative in American schooling. But, first, we have to understand how your child’s brain works.

The first five years

Scientific research in human brain development has uncovered much about how young minds grow. This research has given savvy parents vital information to help them provide rich, stimulating opportunities for learning at each stage of brain development, from birth through adolescence.

The first five years might be the most important to your child’s academic success. This is the period when all the connections, or synapses, between your baby’s brain cells are formed. Stimuli from the environment you’ve created for your little one not only influence the development of these synapses; it also affects the rate and growth of myelination. Myelin is the fat that insulates mature brain cells and enables clear transmission of information across synapses.

Everything your baby senses, from the smell of your skin as you hold her close to the sight of bees buzzing around a crop of dandelions, snaps, crackles, and pops those synapses into place, and the brain is wired for life. According to an article published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “By the age of 3, a baby’s brain has reached almost 90 percent of its adult size. The growth in each region of the brain largely depends on receiving stimulation, which spurs activity in that region. This stimulation provides the foundation for learning.”

The ‘5 to 7 Shift’

But that doesn’t mean that your child’s brain stops changing. Around the time most American children enter grade school, their brains change so much that neuropsychologists call this period the “5 to 7 shift.” According to Jane M. Healy, author of “Your Child’s Growing Mind,” “One study found that a specific area involved with language and spatial awareness had changed 85% between ages six and seven in one girl’s brain.”

“Up until now,” Healy says, “the child has been creating her own concrete symbol systems such as using words, developing ideas about numbers, and making pictures of things she knows. Now she starts to deal with more formalized symbol systems — words in books, math equations, mental images for thinking and remembering.”

As this dynamic period ends and your child reaches age 7 or 8, Healy says, most young brains are “avid learning machines.” By about this time, most children can read for meaning, write sentences from dictation, read music while playing, hold a paper with one hand and write with the other, and form images or thoughts in words inside the head, she says.

Bye-bye, baby, and hello, big kid

From about age 8 to 10, myelination of fibers helps your big kid link senses and ideas, enabling her to move beyond learning to read and begin reading to learn. Interest in nonfiction may grow as facts become more important. This is the age when your child is to be likely able to help with late-summer back-to-school shopping by using her recently acquired math skills. Despite these new skills, your child’s 8- to 10-year-old brain still learns best with hands-on, concrete, play-based activities.

‘Path to the future’

Around age 11, your child may experience hormonal changes that happen just as new myelin and synapse growth in the brain kick in, and it might feel like the pubescent person living right there in your home is actually a strange visitor from another reality. This period is what Healy calls “the final maturation of the ‘path to the future.’ ” She goes on to say that your child now has a distinct learning style and that her brain “is gaining wonderful new powers.” Though this is the time when parents step back and applaud more independent learning, you still have a crucial role to play. In the next two parts of this series, you’ll get concrete suggestions for deeper, more thoughtful learning experiences to stimulate your child’s growing brain.

Ulen is author of the novel “Crystelle Mourning.” She can be reached online at EisaUlen.com and on Twitter @EisaUlen.