Summer break is typically a time for kids to kick back, indulge in a little extra screen time, play outside, and embrace the kind of freedom that only comes with being young and having zero responsibilities. However, all of this free time can lead to the summer slide, a regression in academic proficiency due to summer break, and experts warn it is hindering kids’ progress when they head back to school.
What Is the Summer Slide?
The concept of the summer slide has been on researchers’ radar since at least 1996, when one of the first comprehensive studies on the phenomenon was published. The study showed that kids lose significant knowledge in reading and math over summer break, which tends to have a snowball effect as they experience subsequent skill loss each year. A more recent study of children in 3rd to 5th grades also showed that students lost, on average, about 20 percent of their school-year gains in reading and 27 percent of their school-year gains in math during summer break.
Who Is at Risk?
Younger children are prone to the most learning loss because they’re at a crucial stage in their development. “In general, kids learn a lot more in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade than kids in middle school or high school, because learning follows a curve where it’s accelerated early in life and then plateaus,” says James Kim, Ed.D., an assistant professor of education at Harvard University. “Things like decoding, letter knowledge, and word reading skills are very susceptible to decay without frequent practice, as are math facts like addition and subtraction.”
Children from low-income families are also disproportionately affected by the summer slide, in ways that can affect them years into their education. In fact, research cited by Kim shows that more than half of the gap in reading scores between low-income 9th graders and their middle-income peers could be attributed to differences in summer learning accumulated between first and fifth grade.
What Can Parents Do to Help?
The good news is that basic skills aren’t hard to maintain over the off-season! There are a number of ways to keep kids engaged in reading and math over the summer:
1. Let kids read what they want.
Children won’t gain as much from summer reading if they aren’t truly enjoying it. Professor Kim says kids should have access to a wide variety of books that they enjoy reading and are fully able to comprehend. They’ll be on board: Nearly 60 percent of children ages 6 to 17 say they love or like reading books for fun a lot, and 52 percent think it’s extremely or very important, according to the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report.
To get started, check out this year's Scholastic Read-a-Palooza Summer Reading Challenge, a free, educational program in which kids can enter reading minutes online to unlock exclusive digital rewards and help donate books to kids in need across the country. Ask your child’s teacher or local librarian if they’re participating — if not, you can register your child individually.
2. Make time for smart play.
Games and puzzles are a great way for kids to brush up on the basics while having fun at the same time. Whether it’s a game geared specifically toward teaching kids math skills, like this Mobi Math Tiles Game, or a learning activity that helps them brush up on vocabulary, like these Sight Word Learning Mats, there are plenty of ways to get children engaged and help them flex their brain power without turning it into a tutoring session.
3. Get out of the house.
Experts have found that novelty stimulates the brain and promotes learning. Visiting a historic site or even simply reading together at the park can help your child get more excited about reading and learning. You can also visit a certain location inspired by the books you read together: For instance, read Hidden Figures, the inspiring true story about four black female mathematicians who helped NASA launch astronauts into space, and then check out a planetarium, bringing up topics covered in the book. This helps reinforce what kids are learning from books in a real-world setting.
4. Use your imagination.
Kids who use their imagination are also expanding their vocabularies and experimenting with new concepts. Even though it may not seem like they’re directly “learning” when they’re crafting their own superhero capes with a superhero starter kit or dreaming up complex chain reactions with educational LEGO sets, they’re still calling on familiar skills and developing new ones. You could even play "theater" and put on a show inspired by all of the great summer books you’re reading together.