Now that summer is upon us and kids are released from the rigid structure of school, parents are looking to fill the void. What can families do to keep their kids engaged until September? We asked for input from educators, family counselors, child psychologists, pediatricians, and other experts to offer suggestions. In return, we received a deluge of insights. 

Overwhelmingly, the most repeated suggestion across the board was to have kids read anything that sparks their interest. Other top ideas included ways to keep kids physically active, suggestions to hone math skills, and pointers on tools that keep their brains active during the summer slump. 

We’ve analyzed and sorted the best ideas for you below. Bookmark it so you can keep coming back to this post for a quick sanity-check on those days when September can’t get here quickly enough. 

1. Get into a reading routine with your kids over the summer to ensure they continue learning.

For younger kids, set aside time right before bed—or whenever your child is most engaged—to read a book of their choosing. For older kids, try offering an incentive system to get them to read on a consistent schedule, says Ally Bush with AmeriCorps VISTA at Reading Partners in Oakland. 

“For example, offer them a few dollars or a sweet treat for every book they read,” says Bush. “We believe that literacy is the foundation of all learning. Over this summer, it’s more important than ever that kids are continuing to read and strengthening their literacy skills.”

When students are confident in their reading skills, they’re more likely to engage meaningfully in school. Reading Partners also recommend these free or low-cost summer reading resources and these tips for making summer reading part of summer fun

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, CEP, president and chief educational consultant at One-Stop College Counseling in Marlboro, New Jersey works with middle and high school students and sees a lot of stressed out, overscheduled, exhausted teens. She advocates taking time off during the summer. At the same time, she agrees that reading is an incredibly important habit to start young. 

“I don’t care what students read—fiction, non-fiction, biographies, what have you. It shouldn’t be seen as a chore,” says Weingarten. “Once kids and teens develop a love for reading, it can become a lifelong passion. In addition, reading helps with comprehension, vocabulary, speed, and can greatly improve writing skills!”

2. Help them discover these educational tools that won’t bore them to tears.

  • GreatSchools.org’s summer learning calendars, outline four weeks of fun, easy-to-implement summer learning activities to help kindergartners through fifth graders practice important skills and get ready for next year.
  • Khan Academy recently added fantastic “Get Ready For __ Grade Math” programs designed for kids to take over the summer and fill in any knowledge gaps that may have built up over the years. 
  • The Crash Course channel on YouTube has full-length courses on everything from AP History to Statistics. Most of the programs are aimed at upper-level high school, but with the help of a tutor or parent, middle school students could benefit from them, too, notes Anna Moss of Mind the Test, LLC. She is also running a series of free online classes and workshops for grades 7-12 this summer on an array of topics such as test prep and writing to cognitive psychology-based study skills. They are available asynchronously on her Facebook page
  • Narbis smartglasses: For kids with ADHD, or those kids who simply have trouble focusing, spending time away from the structure of a classroom environment can exacerbate attention issues. Narbis at-home smartglasses use neurofeedback to measure brain activity and help kids with attention disorders. Sensors in the Narbis glasses and a NASA-patented algorithm track how relaxed, distracted, and focused you are to help the brain practice focus and attention. 
  • Summer Playbook: Emily Lawson, who blogs at Sandbox Academy, offers this free guide (available as a printable PDF) to 30 STEM, art, and baking activities for the summer, geared towards elementary students. 

3. Fresh out of ideas? Camps full? Give music lessons a go.

Patrick Worley, who sits on the UNLV board for music education and teaches private music lessons, suggests that a great routine for kids over summer vacation is for them to learn and advance in a hobby of interest, building upon knowledge and skill a bit each day. 

“The momentum that comes from daily disciplined practice is a key to avoiding laziness in growing children,” says Worley, “So if your kids have an interest in an instrument, singing, or even a certain genre of music, signing them up for local music lessons in your area will give them something productive to do during the summer and will prime them for being ready to go back to in-school teaching.”

It’s hard to dispute the clear and present scientific evidence that shows how much influence music has on cognitive development. 

“The research is there: Music makes you smarter. It will lead to greater happiness, higher self-esteem, improved work and school performance, higher IQ, and delays cognitive decline,” says  Curtis Forbes, founder and CEO, Forbes Music Company which provides in-home and online music lessons in twelve service areas across the U.S. 

4. Set up a daily routine, including quiet time.

Anne Wahlgren, a licensed teacher, mom of three, and blogger at PrintableParents.com suggests three things parents will want to do to have a meaningful summer:

  • Establish a basic daily routine with a picture chart for pre-readers or a simple list for older children.Things to include on the list: meals, hygiene (i.e. brushing teeth), a simple chore or two (like making the bed and setting the table), outdoor play or exercise, and time for reading.
  • Write down a few clear family rules or expectations for the summer. This will ease the transition for when children return to in-person school after distance learning. Schools have firm boundaries and structure. Reduce the stress of those increased demands by having established expectations for behavior for your child.
  • With students spending so much time online and on screens, fine motor skills and handwriting have suffered. This summer is a perfect time to work on writing with pencil and paper. Encourage your child to write a journal in a spiral notebook or send letters to grandparents.  Craft activities that involve cutting and gluing also develop fine motor skills for children of all ages.

Emily Lawson, who is a former elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom also suggests setting aside 1–2 hours for quiet time each day. The kids are either required to play by themselves or together: The only rule: They can’t look to their parents for help unless it is an emergency. 

5. Use the summer to build fitness back into their lives.

Children have taken a big hit in their physical endurance during remote learning.  We don’t realize how much movement goes into daily life for our children, from walking to the bus, to going between classes at school, and throughout the day.  For many children, physical activity has been limited to trips from bed to desk (and for some teenagers, we’re lucky if they left their beds). 

Dr. Joni Redlich, a Pediatric Physical Therapist at KidPT.com and author of Turn Stumbling Blocks into Building Blocks, a guide that uses movement to maximize all areas of development believes summer is the ideal time to build fitness back into kids’ lives. She suggests the following: 

  • Get outside by exploring different parks, trails and bike paths.  
  • Find new places to swim and try a new sport.
  • Follow your child’s interests so they are motivated to push past the initial difficulty of getting moving again.
  • Combine movement and learning activities for young children. 
  • Use chalk on the driveway to practice letters, sight words, or math facts as children jump to the answers.  
  • Build obstacle courses where they are moving over, under and sideways.  
  • Make a scavenger hunt of math problems where children have to run around to find the answers.  

“Combining movement and learning lights up the brain and helps children retain what they are learning,” says Redlich. 

6. Use games to enhance learning and information retention.

 It is extremely helpful to use games, life skills activities, and family time to enhance learning and retention of information, says Melissa Packwood, MS. Ed., an educational consultant, certified teacher in Florida, and an executive functioning coach. 

  • Games such as Uno, Monopoly, or Memory extend topics taught in school to other activities, which helps children use these skills in a variety of situations later in life. Plus, they help with working memory and social/emotional skills such as patience, empathy, and teamwork. 
  • Applying multiplication skills at the grocery store when tallying how much five packages of yogurt will cost gives a real-world application to prior math lessons and helps solidify this skill to long-term memory. 
  • Planning a recipe, then doubling it because you have more guests than the recipe provides for uses skills such as fractions, multiplication, and time management.
  • Vacations can be used to help learn reading skills. Have a word or letter hunt while driving. Practice counting, spelling, or looking for shapes while out and about. 
  • For older students, research the history of a place you visit. Attend tours and museums to learn more. 

“Work on skills in the real world to help cement academic skills in your child’s long-term memory while having fun,” says Packwood.

7. Work math into their daily lives to keep kids’ minds active.

Students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD typically need a little more review of academic skills over the summer than traditional learners. Students with language, memory, and processing challenges require additional practice to ensure that they maintain their school-year gains, notes Janice Lloyd, director of small group instruction and professional development at the Highland School in Bel Air, Maryland.

Elementary (grades K-5): 

  • For younger children, math skill development can be done through games, songs, and daily activities. For example, as they unload the dishwasher, have them count the number of forks and spoons. 
  • As they get older, skip count by 5s and 10s. As they grow more able to skip count, challenge them. Don’t always stop at 10 or 100. Can they count backward starting at 14, or count by 5s starting at 35; or 10s starting from 80 to 200? 
  • Lloyd also encourages match practice using a pencil and paper. A variety of workbooks and math worksheet generators are available online, including math-aids.com, math-drills.com, and kutasoftware.com. 

Middle and High School (grades 6-12):

  • Middle school and high school students can use apps such as Khan Academy; but also should be writing the problems on paper so they are practicing showing their work and ensuring they are understanding. 
  • Parents should monitor app/computer use. Students will learn more math by doing 20 minutes of paper math than 60 minutes where you think they are on IXL, yet are really on Tik-Tok. 
  • Don’t get hung up on the grade level of some of these programs. It is okay to work on some lower skills in order to improve fluency in math calculation. This will allow them to be able to spend more time on math problem-solving as they get into higher-level skills. 

Conclusion

Learning during the summer won’t look the same as learning at school. But hopefully, these tips will help you and your kids avoid that summertime brain drain. Sticking to a simple schedule that includes reading, a gentle introduction to websites of topics of interest, new activities, and tools that will keep their brains alert will prepare kids for a brand-new school year. And perhaps ready for a full year of in-person learning.