The phrase “summer slide” brings to mind a ride at an amusement park. But in reality, these words describe something more sobering — young people’s tendency to lose academic ground during the summer months.
On average, students lose a month in learning between the end of one school year and the start of the next. The problem is worse among low-income students, who often lack access to summer enrichment opportunities. These young people may lose two to three months in reading skills, according to one report.
“Children who are already struggling in school are affected the most, especially if they don’t read over the summer,” said Katie McLane, an Oakland, California, teacher, counselor and principal for more than 30 years.
Over time, the achievement gap worsens, with low-income children ending up 2 1/2 to 3 years behind their higher-income peers by fifth grade.
Academics aren’t all that suffers during summer. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches at school often lose access to healthy food. And without the structure of physical education and recess, or the availability of safe places to play, many kids fall into a pattern of physical inactivity and excessive screen time.
The summer slide doesn’t have to be a given. Even if you can’t afford to enroll your child in summer camps and classes, parents can do a lot to make summer healthy, enriching and fun.
- Find out about community resources. Many communities offer free summer programs for kids such as breakfast and lunch programs, summer school and pre-K camps. In Oakland, for example, the Summer Food Service Program offers free lunches and afternoon snacks to children 18 and under at schools and libraries throughout the city. “That’s so important, because it gives them the nutrition and energy they need to learn and play,” said McLane. “But I worry that many of our families aren’t aware of this resource.”
- Curl up with a book. Summer is a great time for kids to read. Freed from the pressures of homework, they can explore the subjects that interest them most. To jump-start summer reading, plan a trip to your local library. Many offer free summer reading programs that use prizes to keep readers motivated. If not, create your own incentive program by offering rewards for each book your child finishes, like a sleepover with a friend or a favorite meal.
- Get creative with math. Find clever ways to exercise your children’s math skills. “Take them along when you go to the grocery store and ask them to help you do comparison shopping by finding the label that shows how much each product costs per ounce,” said McLane. “Or ask them to look at the nutrition information on foods they like, and find out how much fat or sugar they contain.” If your son likes to bake, ask him to measure out the ingredients for a recipe that you can prepare together. And when you’re traveling together in the car, have a contest to see who can be the first one to add up the numbers on the license plate ahead of you.
- Keep moving. To prevent summer weight gain, encourage children to stay active by playing ball, riding bikes, or going for a walk or run in the neighborhood. Swimming is another great way to exercise while getting a break from the heat. Many cities and towns operate free or low-cost swimming pools, and in some areas, Kaiser Permanente funds free community access to swimming pools.
- Make healthy eating easy. To encourage healthy eating, keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked with plenty of nutritious options. Then set aside a drawer or shelf where your kids know they can always can find healthy snacks, such as apples, oranges, and grapes; pre-sliced cucumbers, celery and bell peppers; and peanut butter and hummus. When hunger strikes, your child will be less likely to reach for unhealthy choices.
- Limit screen time. Too much time on electronic media by kids has been linked to problems such as obesity, insufficient sleep, and academic and emotional problems. Even during summer vacation, it’s important to limit your child’s use of televisions, computers, cell phones and tablets. Set a daily limit for screen use, and enforce it just as you would during the school year. And when your children are spending time online, encourage them to visit educational sites that feature math and reading games.
- Get your ZZZs. While it’s fine for kids to go to bed a little later than usual during summer vacation, make sure they are still getting adequate sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends kids ages 6 to 13 get 9 to 11 hours of sleep a night. Teens need 8 to 10 hours. Set a summer bedtime, and encourage your kids to stick with it by following the same bedtime routine you do during the school year, whether that’s reading a book or talking quietly in bed.
- Make time for family connection. You can play a game, go for a walk, read a book or just spend time together talking. “Children gain so much from these interactions, both emotionally and in terms of their intellectual development,” said McLane. “I know that working parents are tired at the end of the day,” she added, “but if they can carve out just 20 minutes to connect, it makes a huge difference.”