Do Kids Really Experience a Summer Slide?

Worried kids will lose serious skills over vacation? Time off has its own rewards: Valuable lessons that help in the classroom and beyond.
By Annie Paul
May 19, 2014



Do Kids Really Experience a Summer Slide?

May 19, 2014

It starts with the updates on Facebook about the many enriching summer programs your friends’ offspring are being signed up for. Next come the hefty homework packets on the last day of school. By the time you read the annual onslaught of articles about the danger of “summer brain drain,” you’re completely overwhelmed—and ready to scream.

Is break really supposed to be just like the school year? And if you don’t get with the (academically minded) program, will your kids really be at risk of falling behind over the coming months?

I used to worry about that fate for my own sons, ages 5 and 8. But after a closer look at the research, including studies cited in many of those scary articles, I started to relax. I’ve even adopted a mantra that I’m happy to share: Kids learn differently in the summer.

There is some evidence that the much hyped “summer slide” is real. Over break, most kids do lose the equivalent of two months of math know-how; those from low-income homes also lose two to three months of reading proficiency.

But when you look at summer from another angle—not as a crisis of fading skills but as an opportunity to practice them in new ways suddenly the season is cast in an (appropriately) sunny light.

For every study documenting how an extended, low-key break can set kids back, there’s research showing how certain downtime activities can actually nudge them forward, boosting their brainpower, social savvy, and emotional maturity, all of which will benefit them come fall.

Best of all, these learning opportunities are probably on your summer bucket list anyway. Check out our easy-breezy, nag-free, and, yes, science-backed ways to prep your kids for the next school year—without really doing a thing.

Get their game on
Math skills can get rusty when kids aren’t practicing them every day. Fortunately, the way out of this dilemma is probably something your child is already doing. That would be playing games—digital ones as well as the low-tech kind with boards.

By teaching kids how to manipulate objects in space, video games improve their spatial abilities, the set of skills they need to visualize how shapes fit together. These are key to math and science success.

Proof that spatial talents improve with practice and transfer from one task (video games) to another (math class): Researchers from Michigan State discovered that after just one 20-minute training session in which 6- to 8-year-olds mentally rotated two halves of an object to create new ones, the children were able to add and subtract more accurately.

No need for special training sessions, though. Kids give their mental rotation skills a workout every time they hunt for and destroy aliens. Gaming is especially beneficial for girls: A study from the University of Toronto found that when they play action games like Lego Marvel, they close the spatial ability gap commonly found between the genders.

Of course, you don’t want kids constantly glued to a screen, so be sure to challenge yours to some board games, which also offer math benefits. Playing games that require flicking a spinner, rolling dice, and moving tokens strengthens a child’s ability to compute which numbers are larger than others in the process.

Better still, numbered board games, like Chutes and Ladders, give kids cues as they construct the number line they carry around in their head—which will help them tackle math problems in September.

Let ’em read what they want
Your kiddo doesn’t have to plow through the whole Harry Potter series (unless he wants to, of course). Just reading four books over the summer is enough to keep his literary skills in shape. (Phew!)

If your child isn’t much of a bookworm, go ahead and let him pick out his own reading material. Researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, gave firsthand second-grade students the option to choose books—no matter the quality—for three summers in a row. The amazing effect of all that free-range reading was equivalent to attending three years’ worth of summer school.

So give your library card a workout this summer—but instead of steering your kid to loftier reads, let him loose among the shelves. Captain Underpants again? Great!

Chat them up
One of the sweetest joys of summer: There’s more time for conversation (around the kitchen table, on family vacations, at Pop Pop’s annual 4th of July BBQ). Good thing, too.

Research reveals that debating, reminiscing, and telling stories alongside adults improves kids’ vocab and background knowledge, the factual info they draw on to better understand the new concepts they encounter in school and books.

Conversations can also boost empathy. Several studies, for example, have found that moms who tell rich, expressive stories about the past help develop their kids’ capacity to understand others.

Just be sure you and Uncle Tim include your kid in the conversation, even when you’re sharing your funny childhood memories. Ask questions that will help your kid relate the tales to his own life (“What would you have done if you’d been locked out of the house the way Tim was?”).

Hit the road
There’s nothing quite as eye-opening as traveling to a new place. The experience deepens a child’s all important background knowledge without much effort on your part. For instance, driving through a desert and viewing plateaus and buttes in context is a better vocab and geography booster than reading the terms in a textbook.

Sticking closer to home this summer? Your kid can get the same perks from a day trip to, say, the aquarium. As she reads about the squid, your cutie will discover that mollusks have no bones—and see what that really means when the sea creature swims by.

Get imaginative
Even if your child is in camp most of the summer, he won’t have afterschool activities or homework, so he may complain of boredom—but don’t jump to suggest something. Having nothing to do gives him the chance to let his mind wander and get creative, alone and with pals.

Researchers have discovered the value of daydreaming and pretend play. Both help kids of any age grasp complex emotions and events, whether they’re imagining themselves winning the finale on The Voice or acting out a battle with their Transformers.

The running conversation kids have as they play alone also helps them work out how to handle social scenarios. (Maybe Bear decides not to invite Lambie to his party, but what will he do if she finds out?)

The same is true when the boy next door pops over to hang out. Not only are both kids using their imaginations, they’re strengthening cooperation and problem-solving abilities. (If they’re playing pirates, they have to figure out who’s going to be captain!) So give the whole family a pass to play freely this summer. It’s one of the best things you can do to set your kids up for success now—and all year long.

Play hard, sleep hard
The key to maximizing the benefits of summer freedom: lots of fun and Z’s

Running around and sleeping in help cement all the skills your kid is honing this summer—and make his noggin work better.

Here’s why: Physical activities that work up a sweat increase blood flow to the brain, bringing along oxygen and nutrients that build brain cells and the connections between them. Meanwhile, getting plenty of shut-eye helps the brain to strengthen memories it forms during daylight hours. Together, sleep and exercise also ease stress and can help to keep moods on an even keel.

So take advantage of sunny afternoons to get kids outdoors. Invite the neighbor kids over and introduce everyone to backyard classics like freeze tag and Red Light, Green Light. A few hours of active play will make it easier for kids to nod off at bedtime—and get the sleep they need to keep those minds sharp all season long.

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