Q: What summer activities do you recommend so kids don't forget what they've learned and are ready to start their new grade in the fall?
A: Teachers love this question, because summer learning loss is real. Research by Duke University professor Harris Cooper shows that without stimulating activities to keep kids' brains in gear during the lazy days of summer, their new knowledge gets hazy.
Studies find that students who "veg out" during vacation show little or no academic growth over summer, at best. At worst, they lose one to three months of learning.
Learning loss is greater in math than reading, says Cooper. He hypothesizes that most parents encourage kids to read over the summer, but are less likely to pay attention to math.
That's why Charleston, Illinois, teacher Pam Evans recommends that kids practice math skills they've haven't mastered.
"If kids don't know their basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts fluently," she says -- meaning, "by heart" -- then summer is the time to nail them.
Evans suggests three websites for fun practice: sumdog.com, straightace.com and tenmarks.com. She also encourages parents to involve kids in everyday math; this can include measuring items around the house, graphing daily temperatures, estimating shopping costs and using fractions while cooking.
Wendy Breit, a South Beloit, Illinois, second-grade teacher, thinks that younger children are less likely to experience a "summer slump" when parents actively reinforce skills. On the last day of school, she sends home weekly activity cards and a calendar with different skill-builder suggestions for students and parents to do together. She says they offer easily scheduled "personal time with children and just enough structure to make the transition to back-to-school routines less rough."
Lisa Ann Schoenbrun, an El Paso, Texas, educator, says the best way to energize young brains is to make each vacation day count.
"Limit screen time to one hour a day," she urges. "Get kids outside. Have them cook up projects -- make a lemonade stand, bake cookies for neighbors, clean out toys and books and donate them to a shelter; make a difference by volunteering."
Schoenbrun suggests giving kids a notebook so that they can "keep a daily journal over the summer. Nothing intense -- what they ate, who they played with. Every few days, using a dictionary and thesaurus for fun, have them add descriptive adjectives and adverbs and correct punctuation."
Schoenbrun suggests taking advantage of summer programs at "local museums, zoos, bookstores, parks and recreation facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and nearby universities -- especially those with education departments."
Team up with other families for educational trips to nearby nature centers and historic sites.
As the new school year approaches, have your children brush up on their skills and also look at the curriculum for the next grade, advises Schoenbrun.
"There are many inexpensive books to guide you," she says, "such as the 'Summer Bridge Activities' series" (Carson-Dellosa Publishing).
Keep a schedule during summer, encourages Helen Merante, a retired Wisconsin principal.
"Sure, kids benefit from unstructured time, but maintain some routines," she says. "Plug in time for reading and other brain-boosting activities. Routines help kids get back on track when it's time to go back to class."
Celebrate National Summer Learning Day on June 19. For more, go to summerlearning.org.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)