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Rest, Yes, but Avoid Summer Brain Drain

It’s summertime.

Breathe deeply, hear the splash in the pool. For a few sweet weeks, let the chaos of the school year recede; forget about schedules and stop rushing around.

You can almost do it, until the dreaded question pops up on the radio, in a newspaper or magazine, or as part of a discussion thread on the neighborhood e-mail list:

What are you doing to prevent summer brain drain?

Just the name conjures images of multiplication tables oozing out of your child’s ears and onto a sandy beach.

Brain drain — or summer learning loss as it’s sometimes less ominously referred to — is nothing new. It’s the impetus behind year-round school and the reason many kids start their summer vacation with backpacks filled with math packets, summer reading lists and essay assignments. And it’s real.

Gary Huggins, chief executive of the National Summer Learning Association, says studies show that kids lose as much as two to three months of math and reading skills over the summer, with the losses being more marked among lower-income kids.

Additionally, a recent survey of teachers by his group found that 66 percent of them said they’re spending three to four weeks at the beginning of the school year teaching old concepts that have been forgotten.

“Summer is great as a break from school, but it doesn’t have to be a break from learning,” Huggins says.

So what’s a parent to do? Should we push our kids during the summer to help them get ahead? Do we use that time to help a child catch up to her classmates? Or do we let them decompress from nine months of endless deadlines and expectations?

Three months or so from now, we’ll send our kids back to school for another year of learning. So it seems fair that teachers should have some say in how we, as parents, deal with summer brain drain. With that in mind, I talked to three educators — at the elementary, middle and high school levels — about what they would like parents and kids to do this summer to be prepared for the new school year.

Elementary school

“Let them play,” are the first words that come from Mary Ellen Zavaleta, who teaches fourth grade at Cherry Run Elementary in Burke, Va.

Then she almost apologizes for the advice. “At first, I thought that’s not important to say, but I think people are so anxious to keep their kids doing well that they go in the other direction,” she says. “Kids go to camps that are meant to help them advance or succeed academically when it might just be as well for these kids to just play.”

Still, Zavaleta is not above mixing playing and learning. Here are some of her suggestions.

∎ Talk to your child. So many conversations between parents and kids during the school year are directional: “Get up; get in the car; do your homework.” But Zavaleta says, “Summer is a time to chat. Spend time getting to know your child, getting to know how they think about the world around them. And letting them get to know you.”

∎ Plan a vacation. Having the whole family involved in the planning of a trip can reinforce math skills (from determining a budget to how many days you spend at the beach vs. Disney World). Figuring out what you want to do requires reading for information, something that kids do in school all the time. Even counting down to vacation involves math skills. Most importantly, it allows kids to “live life with you,” Zavaleta says.

∎ Write postcards. While you’re on that vacation, have everyone in the family write some postcards. It helps with penmanship and makes kids sort through a lot of information to find the most important facts, and yet the space is small enough that even young kids won’t see it as a chore. “Keep writing pain free,” Zavaleta advises.

∎ Have Kids’ Dinner Night. “Once a child is 10 or 11, have him be fully responsible for dinner one night,” Zavaleta suggests. That means coming up with the shopping list (Mom or Dad still has to pay), setting the table, preparing the meal, deciding on the dinner conversation topic and cleaning up afterward. It involves math, organizational and, perhaps most importantly, life skills.

Middle school

Middle school is a huge transition and, for many kids, can be fraught with academic and social insecurity. But it’s also a time when kids are discovering different ways to learn, and that can make summer learning especially important, says Jennifer Webster, principal of Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, Md.

Teaching used to be about “giving and repeating information,” Webster says. But particularly for middle-schoolers, summer should be about “reviewing information they’ve already learned and making sure they can apply it to the world around them. If they learn to make those connections, then no learning is lost.”

∎ Do something new. “Middle school is all about exploring new interests,” she says. “Your child may discover an interest that you never imagined. So expose them to a new sport, a new hobby, a new class.”

∎ Be nontraditional. If you want your child to read over the summer, great. But don’t force him to do the reading you think he should be doing. “Going online to read something and having a discussion about it” can be just as educational as reading a novel from a summer book list, Webster says.

∎ Help make connections. “For middle school kids, relevancy is so important; if they have experienced something, then they can understand it better. So go downtown, visit a museum. Social learning is important for kids this age,” she says.

High school

“I think that it’s very difficult for adults to understand how stressful high school is,” says Victoria Melin, director of the scholars program at St. John’s College High School in Washington. “The amount of stress high school kids put on themselves to get into college ... means that they are thinking about their future constantly.”

So Melin endorses the idea of lazy summers — but with a purpose. “If kids can take time out, go to the beach, hang out with friends, then they come back excited to learn,” she says.

By the time kids are in high school, you want them to understand that learning is a lifelong pursuit. “Summer is a great time to learn other skills that will help you in life — besides conjugating verbs,” Melin says.

∎ Get a summer job or do volunteer work. “These are things that help them develop socially ... interacting with adults, managing money,” she says. “It’s all a huge part of their education.”

∎ Go to an outdoor movie festival.”It doesn’t feel like learning, but watching Casablanca absolutely is,” Melin says. And so is the shared experience of discussing it afterward, she adds.

∎ Start a family book club. Pick a book and have everyone in the family read it. “It doesn’t have to be Dickens or Faulkner,” she says. “It can be a New York Times bestseller. The important thing is that everyone reads it.”

∎ Do something that opens your world. “Not everyone can study French in Paris,” Melin says. “But ... there are so many opportunities to learn by accident. And if you’re having fun and you learn something, you’ll remember it forever.”

And that is the best cure of all for summer brain drain.