May 26, 2024
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Do Children Really Experience a Summer Slide?

Parents often worry that their children will lose serious skills over summer vacation. This is especially true given the interrupted classroom time during COVID. Before school ends, kids talk about the summer programs they have signed up for. Then come the summer homework packets on the last day of school to avoid the danger of “summer brain drain.”

Is the summer break really supposed to be just like the school year? And if you don’t get with the program, will kids really be at risk of falling behind over the coming months? Looking at the research, we can conclude that parents can relax. The research shows that kids learn differently in the summer.

There is some confirmation that the “summer slide” is real. During the summer break, many kids do lose the equivalent of two months of math skills and some reading ability. However, if you look at summer from a different angle—not as a crisis of diminishing skills but as an opportunity to practice them in new ways, suddenly the summer is cast in a totally different, sunny light.

For every study showing how an extended, low-key break can set kids back, there’s research indicating that certain downtime activities can actually push them forward, stimulating their brain power, social skills and emotional maturity, all of which will help them in the fall. Time off does have its own rewards. There are valuable lessons that help in the classroom and beyond. These lessons can be in the areas of cognitive skills, creativity, language arts and math.

Here are some nag-free, research-backed ways to prep your child for the next school year—without really doing a thing. Most of these activities apply to children who are not at summer camp. However, they can apply to the camp setting as well. Get their game on. Math skills can get rusty when kids aren’t practicing them every day. Fortunately, the way out of this dilemma is probably something your child is already doing. That would be playing games—digital ones as well as the low-tech kind with boards. This happens at home and at camp.

By manipulating objects in space, video and cell phone games improve their spatial abilities, the skills they need to visualize how shapes fit together. These are key to math and science success. There is ample proof that spatial talents improve with practice and transfer from one task (video games) to another (math class).

Researchers from Michigan State discovered that after just one 20-minute training session in which 6- to 8-year-olds rotated two halves of an object to create new ones, the children were able to add and subtract more accurately. There is no need for special training sessions. Kids give their mental rotation skills a workout every time they hunt for and destroy aliens. Gaming is especially beneficial for girls: A study from the University of Toronto found that when they play action games like Lego Marvel, they close the spatial ability gap commonly found between the genders.

Naturally, you don’t want kids constantly glued to a screen. At home or on rainy days in their camp bunks, they are challenged by board games, which also offer math benefits. Playing games that require flicking a spinner, rolling dice and moving tokens strengthens a child’s ability to compute which numbers are larger than others in the process. Numbered board games, like Chutes and Ladders, give kids cues as they construct the number line they carry around in their head—which will help them tackle math problems in September.

Let them read what they want. Your kid doesn’t have to plow through the entire “Harry Potter” series (unless he wants to, of course). Just reading four books over the summer is enough to keep his literary skills in shape. Going over the parsha doesn’t hurt either. Naturally, daily davening ensures that those skills are also maintained.

If your child isn’t much of a bookworm, let him pick out his own reading material. Researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, gave first- and second-grade students the option to choose books—no matter the quality—for three summers in a row. The amazing effect of all that free-range reading was equivalent to attending three years’ worth of summer school. Let him/her pick any book, as long as they are reading.

Discuss it with them. Ask their camp counselor to do the same. There’s more time for conversation in the summer—picnics, family vacations, at the Shabbat table, etc. At camp it can become an activity. These discussions are important. Research shows that debating, reminiscing and telling stories alongside adults improves kids’ vocabulary and background knowledge. The information they draw on from books will assist them to better understand new concepts they encounter later in school.

Conversations can also boost empathy. Several studies have found that parents who tell rich, expressive stories about the past help develop their kids’ capacity to understand others. Just be sure you and Uncle Shmuel include your kid in the conversation, even when you’re sharing your funny childhood memories. Ask questions that will help your child relate the stories to his own life: “What would you have done if you’d been locked out of the house the way Shmuley was?”

There’s nothing quite as eye-opening as traveling to a new place. The experience deepens a child’s all-important background knowledge without much effort on your part. For instance, driving through farmland and viewing cows, horses, corn fields, lakes and tractors is a better vocabulary and geography booster than reading about them in a textbook. Urge children to keep a diary of their travels, even at camp, and especially in Israel.

If your child is home he/she can get the same benefits from a day trip to the aquarium, the zoo or a museum. The same is true when the kid next door pops over to hang out. Not only are both kids using their imaginations, they’re strengthening cooperation and problem-solving abilities. (If they’re playing pirates, they have to figure out who’s going to be captain!)

The key to maximizing the benefits of summer freedom: lots of fun and sleep. Running around and sleeping in help cement all the skills your child is sharpening this summer—and make his brain work better. Here’s why: Physical activities that work up a sweat increase blood flow to the brain, bringing along oxygen and nutrients that build brain cells and the connections between them. Meanwhile, getting plenty of sleep helps the brain to strengthen memories it forms during daylight hours. Together, sleep and exercise also ease stress and can help to keep moods on an even keel.

Take advantage of sunny afternoons to get children outdoors to run around and play. A few hours of active play will make it easier for children to fall asleep at bedtime and get the sleep they need to keep those minds sharp all season long.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a day school educator, administrator, and consultant.

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