Studies show that summer is a time when many kids, away from the rigor of daily academic work, lose some -- or much -- of what they've learned during the school year. This setback is often referred to as a "summer slump." Summarizing decades of research, the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) points out that over the summer months, most students lose "two months of grade level equivalency" in essential math skills. Similar loss occurs in reading skills. An NSLA survey found that each fall, 66% of teachers spend up to a month reteaching course material from the previous year. The prevalence of the summer slump represents a clear impediment to academic growth and demonstrates that learning activities should continue throughout the summer months.
Summer learning from a student’s perspective
For years, parents and teachers have relied on traditional learning methods, primarily summer school programs using all-too-familiar worksheets and textbooks, to try to prevent summer learning loss. To get the student perspective on this and other popular summer teaching strategies, I sat down with some fourth- and fifth-graders to discuss how they plan to spend their summer vacations. Many of the students I interviewed felt that traditional summer learning activities are too similar to those they do during the school year. Most saw summer as an important break from formal academics, defined by a sense of freedom unavailable when school is in session. Fifth-grader Lawrence B. expressed this outlook very clearly. After listing the many activities he planned to do when school was out, Lawrence reveled in the fact that "there’s so much stuff you can do during the summer." His attitude demonstrates that the freedom summer provides encourages and motivates Lawrence and other kids to explore and expand their interests.
Let curiosity lead the way
Summer-learning resources should encourage kids' enthusiasm by allowing their curiosity to guide their learning about the world around them. An example of such a resource can be found in the website Geocaching and its mobile app. Geocaching is essentially a real-world treasure hunt, in which kids attempt to locate containers hidden by others. The resulting exploration and investigation help kids develop skills important in both the classroom and the real world. In searching for geocaches, kids learn the practical importance of such foundational math concepts as drawing graphs and measuring distances. Students expand their vocabulary through a glossary of site-specific words and geographical terms. And, most important, the activities engage students' critical-thinking skills in a setting outside a classroom environment, helping them develop a practical understanding of the real world.
Help students feel accomplished
Other methods of summer learning can also teach real-world skills. Quality pieces of learning media like Geocaching, however, possess a unique ability to make students feel accomplished. Most students I talked to felt that successfully completing a given learning resource should produce a sense of achievement that reflects the effort they put into it. It can be difficult for students to find such accomplishment on the page of a textbook, even if they complete the activity perfectly. Because the rewards of traditional methods are usually associated with a classroom setting, kids can have trouble interpreting the significance of their achievements outside that environment. Kids did find, however, that quality learning media provide a tangible sense of accomplishment. Fifth-grader Liza S. mentioned the puzzle app 2048 as an example. Though a subjective goal makes 2048's real-world significance seem relatively vague, it provides students the opportunity to attain a very real sense of accomplishment. For Liza, a sense of pride from "[doing] something clever" to reach a new high score represented a palpable achievement. By validating effort with accomplishment, educational media can demonstrate the inherent value of that effort and keep students excited about learning.
When choosing a summer learning method for your students, keep two important considerations in mind. First, remember that summer is a time for them to exercise a freedom unavailable during the school year; therefore, summer learning should be compatible with unrestricted exploration. And second, be mindful that kids want to feel a sense of achievement, and they engage most in learning activities that provide that reward. Any summer learning activity built around these ideas will surely prove successful.
Ben Shapiro is a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis. As a summer intern at Common Sense Media, he took on a project exploring the role of media and technology during the summer. His main goal was to understand how kids interact with media and technology during the summer and to learn whether these two resources could be used to help maintain important school skills. He interviewed fourth- and fifth-graders and surveyed their parents to gather information that could be shared with parents and teachers to help students avoid a summer slump and make a smooth transition into the next school year.