What Every Parent Should Know About the “Summer Slide”

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August 5th, 2010

By Alisa Gilbert

Your kids — from kindergartners to college students pursuing an bachelor’s degree — wait the whole academic year for their last day of school before summer vacation, but for you, it’s probably a bittersweet moment. Not only do you have to find child care or entertainment options for younger kids, but you also know that a lot of what your child worked so hard to achieve during the school year, they’ll forget by September. All those late nights studying and the frustration over math homework and science projects were supposed to result in some sort of lasting enlightenment, right? Your kids won’t forget everything they’ve learned, but even teachers feel frustrated at having to devote the first few weeks of school reviewing lessons from the grade below theirs.

This falling behind is called the “summer slide,” and parents and summertime caregivers (like grandparents and babysitters) are the most effective force in preventing it. While you probably don’t have the heart to enroll in your kids in summer school if they performed well the year before, there are lots of activities — organized and non-official — that will keep your kids’ brains active. Here’s what parents need to know about fighting the summer slide.


  • If my child slides, does that mean he or she will be behind all year?: Most kids fall behind a little during the summer, especially if they aren’t pursuing any sort of educational activity, like going to day camp. But that doesn’t mean they’re stupid or will continue to slip once they’re back in a classroom. Think of it like practicing an instrument: if you stop playing for three months, your first few lessons will be harder than you remembered, and it may take you a few weeks to get back on track, no matter how great you performed before.
  • How are math skills affected?: A recent Time magazine story estimated that most students fall at least a month behind in math skills during the summertime.
  • What about reading?: The same article points to students from low-income schools and backgrounds as suffering the most when it comes to reading: many from those communities fall up to three months behind in reading development, even if they made similar progress as middle-income students during the academic year.
  • Is it possible to reverse the slide?: Yes. Some children — particularly those from higher income backgrounds who typically have access to more educational opportunities during the summer — actually improve skills and are better prepared for the new school year than they were when they finished in May or June.
  • Do kids even want to learn during the summer?: Of course your kids want and deserve a break, but the Today show reported that over 50% of students expressed interest in some sort of summer learning program.

How Kids Slide

Summer is about being a little lazy, playing with friends, and having a more relaxed schedule. But if you see your kids spending too much time with the following activities, you need to direct them to something more educational and productive, or at least find a way to incorporate learning into their summertime indulgences.

  • Going to the pool every single day (and not bringing a book)
  • Watching re-runs (or too much TV in general)
  • Playing video games
  • Texting and playing with smart phones
  • Sleeping way too late

Activities and Learning Opportunities

Keep your kids learning with these activities. They’ll still have fun and get to enjoy more quality time with family members and friends, too.

  • Read books: Reading may be one of the most effective ways to prevent the summer slide. Early readers won’t lose ground at all if they take on 30 or more books per summer, according to a Denver, CO, principal.
  • Read everything else, too: Turn your kids on to newspapers, magazines, menus, maps, blogs, and everything else, just so that they can get the practice. They’ll also learn about new media, current events, and work on developing critical thinking and more complex reading comprehension skills.
  • Get the whole family involved: Don’t isolate your child the same way he or she might feel during traditional homework time. Instead, get everyone involved for a library trip, puzzle night, or even reading out loud.
  • Have dinner together: Actually have a conversation that includes your kids during dinner time, like studying a map before taking a trip or reviewing a movie you all just watched.
  • Free museum days: Most city museums have a free day once a week or a couple of times a month. Take your kids and their friends on these days, and let them explore the exhibits. Ask them to write down their favorite memory, and something they learned from the trip.
  • Embrace hands-on learning: Let kids try out new recipes they see on TV or work out science experiments in the backyard.
  • Summer classes: Sign up your child for one or two summer classes that are run more like a camp. You don’t have to schedule them for math or history classes — any class that teaches them a new skill in a subject they’re interested in like creative writing or painting will keep them motivated.
  • Tutor: Hire a private tutor to come to your house for a few weeks to help your child practice math and reading skills in a workbook or by playing games. Keep the lessons casual and relaxed.
  • Embrace online learning resources and games: Not all video or online games are bad, and as many more schools are using technology in the classroom, your child actually should have a solid understanding of computers and the web. Experiment with virtual reality games, open courseware, and even podcasts for learning.
  • Camp: Day camps and sleep-away camps provide social interaction, outdoors adventures, arts and crafts and other activities that sneak learning and development in without kids really knowing it.
  • Go on vacation: Vacations — even ones close to home — are terrific learning opportunities for kids and adults. Visit tourist centers to learn about the area, go to museums, and invite your children to help with the planning process, too.
  • Performing arts: Get tickets to free summer concerts or plays to introduce children to the arts.
  • Make up your own field trip: Draw up a scavenger hunt outlining local history and culture, and then take your kids and a camera around the city for an educational game.

Helpful Resources

  • National Summer Learning Association: This group started at Johns Hopkins University when students tutored Baltimore-area kids during the summer. Parents can find tips, stories and a blog if they want ideas on keeping their kids engaged and learning on school breaks.
  • Reading is Fundamental: Learn about literacy programs supported by this group, and check out the parents page to find reading tips and activities by age group.
  • Reading Rockets: Find reading guides and help discovering how to best teach your children how to read on this site.
  • Family Education: This website features printable worksheets, and lots of family activities that promote learning.
  • KidsKnowIt.com: Let your kids play the games on this site, categorized by subjects like memory, history, math and astronomy.
  • PBS Kids: Young children can watch videos and play games to help with math, spelling, and more.
  • LearningPlanet.com: From word searches to daily quizzes, kids can play games for free, and parents can subscribe to access even more activities.
  • Discovery Channel: The Discovery Channel has great videos, games, news stories, and info pages about everything from shark week to technology.

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