ParentMap Summer | Education

Summer Learning: How to Keep Math, Reading and School Skills Sharp Over Break

summer learningWe love summer. After all, the pressure’s off. Sure, we have to get our kids to camps, swim class and playdates. But all that stress over homework, spelling tests and reading assignments? They disappear with that much-cherished last day of school.

Or do they?

The fact is, kids lose crucial skills during the summer months. Here are some facts from the National Summer Learning Association:

  • Most students lose about two months of grade-level equivalency in math skills over the summer.
  • All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer.
  • More than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth can be explained by unequal access to summer learning opportunities.

What to do?

Keep ’em learning while making sure they get their summer-fun fix. Combining sheer play and enriching programs can help kids stay school sharp while honing new interests and talents. Parents can enhance that process by staying active themselves and modeling learning through their own activities.

“We are role models for our children from early infancy,” says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., codirector at the University of Washington Institute for Learning & Brain Science. “They want to be like us. They are absorbing information, transforming what they see into their own actions. This imitation accelerates learning and multiple learning opportunities.”

So why not make summer learning an active, enjoyable time for discovering new things together? Here are some ideas and local resources to help get that ball rolling.

Hike together

The beauty of our nearby mountains, lakes and ocean inlets is one of the wonderful assets of living in the Seattle area. Thanks to groups like the Washington Trails Association (WTA), there are thousands of trails crisscrossing our state’s mountains or hugging our lakes and ocean shoreline. And hiking offers unlimited learning ops: Kids can extend their arsenal of scientific knowledge by examining the animals, plants, history and geology of our surroundings.

The WTA’s website includes “Hiking 101 Basics,” a hiking guide, a hike finder map, trip reports from fellow hikers and a photo gallery. The hike finder map can help you select the right hikes for you and your family, along with the trail’s location, the length of the hike and its level of difficulty.

Add reading to that hiking experience. Check out Best Hikes with Kids: Western Washington & the Cascades and The Kids’ Guide to Nature Adventures: 80 Great Activities for Exploring the Outdoors. Ask your librarian for suggestions on books that explain those curiosities of nature that spark your child’s interests, such as volcanoes, dinosaurs, bird migration, marine life, rocks or wildflowers.

Go to camp

The wide variety of summer camp opportunities available in our area can complement your family’s hiking adventures. The Pacific Science Center offers Road Trip: Nature for children in grades 4–8. This one-week program combines five outdoor field trips that bring science to life. Kids will experience the hydrodynamics of a canoe, practice using a compass and GPS, learn about the geological events that created the rock they’ll climb, and learn more about the region’s plants and animals.

Or visit the Burke Museum, where you and your children will explore exhibits on rivers, fossils, plant life and more.

Read together

Nothing beats a book, and the Summer Reading Program at the Seattle Public Library offers a tempting rewards program (spl.org). Kids set a goal to read 10 or more books over the summer. After they read their first 10, they win a book of their choice.

The library also features a full line-up of summer programs for children, teens and families. “Last summer, over 24,000 children and adults read over 193,000 books,” says Amy Twito, program manager for youth services. “We work hard to make reading accessible and fun for the whole family, and to ensure that children’s reading skills don’t decline over the summer months.”

Summer camps and activities

The Seattle area is brimming with summer camp opportunities, from camps that focus on sports and physical skills to others that highlight cooking, marine life and nature, circus and acrobatic skills, science and every facet of the arts. These full- and part-day camps vary in cost, and the most popular ones fill up quickly (see our camps and classes calendar).

Seattle mom Laura Adriance, Ph.D., director of youth programming for the World Affairs Council’s Global Classroom, recommends the YMCA for its array of programs as well as its emphasis on values such as respect and responsibility. “My son Zach would come home with ‘values reports’ and sometimes little awards. These social skills, although not academic per se, are very important for kids to work successfully in groups and thrive at school.”

Math magic

Math skills are the hardest hit by the summer lull. The good news: Math classes, coaches and camps abound in the Seattle area. One program that especially stands out is the Pacific Science Center’s Young Entrepreneurs program for fourth- through sixth-graders.

Participants (future CEOs?) will learn about the challenges and triumphs of starting and managing a business while gathering skills in problem solving, budgeting, team building, setting goals, recognizing opportunities and bringing the product to market. Check out more at Pacific Science Center.

Gaming and apps

From a parent’s perspective, it’s tempting to interpret our kids’ fascination and focus on all things digital — from gaming to social media — as a distraction (at best) and a deterrent (at worst) to learning and succeeding at school.

But Michael Levine, Ph.D., executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Work­shop, warns parents not to underestimate the role technology will continue to play in their kids’ lives. “This generation of children will need to be skillful in using the latest technology to compete and cooperate in a hyperconnected world,” he says.

To help you guide your child’s exploration of the digital world, and to learn more about it yourself, visit Common Sense Media for reliable reviews of digital media. Here are a few of its top-rated educational games and apps for flexing math muscles:

  • Crashmo (age 8)
  • Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning (age 9)
  • American Mensa Academy brain-training mini-games (age 10)
  • Sakura Quick Math app (age 7)
  • iCross app (age 10)


Care to upgrade your own math and thinking skills? Check out some KenKen puzzles or try one of the many free adult math games available online at kenken.

Another wealth of information is the resource-rich Kahn Academy.

Kathleen Guy is an author, speaker, consultant and not-for-profit executive focused on children’s well-being. She has given keynote speeches, leadership training workshops and government consultations in more than 30 states and in all Canadian provinces, and works with UNICEF and other international child development groups.

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