Fun and free summer learning for kidsShould summer be a time to play or a time to learn? How about both? With a little inspiration, you’ll find lots of ways to keep summer learning fun — and free.

“Let summer break be a break from the classroom, but not a break from learning,” says Lindsey Benedetti, a first-grade teacher at Rose Hill Elementary in Kirkland. “Kids who continue to practice reading, writing and math are much more prepared for the coming school year.” Benedetti suggests parents try new things to make learning fun, such as encouraging their children to read about new topics, play games with math or write about their summer adventures. “There are tons of possibilities to keep kids learning all summer, yet have fun at the same time.”

Book ’em!

To keep her five children reading, Michelle Meyers of Redmond takes them to the library throughout the summer. Kids can participate in the summer reading challenges offered by the Pierce County, King County, Seattle, Tacoma and Timberline Regional libraries. Each library offers prizes for kids who finish the challenge; some even bestow prizes for getting halfway. Pierce County’s program lets kids read for a cause, collecting money for charity for every hour they read. Some libraries, like Summer reading for kids the Tacoma Public Library, host an end-of-summer party for challenge finishers. Bookstores, including Half Price Books and Barnes & Noble, also offer summer reading programs — and the prizes are books! And nobody says you have to limit your family to one program. Help your children track their reading, and they could earn all sorts of awards.

Stage a coup

Here’s another way to short-circuit summer brain drain: Take your kids to see live theater. Last summer, Kirkland mom Rachel Spigarelli took her daughter to watch outdoor Shakespeare on San Juan Island. The 5-year-old was entranced by the show, and Spigarelli had an easy exit in case her daughter misbehaved. Several companies in the Seattle area also perform Shakespeare outdoors for free. This year, the Seattle Shakespeare Company will perform “Much Ado About Nothing,” a comedy all ages can enjoy. (Its second performance, “Othello,” might be a little dark for younger playgoers.) Shows will be performed around the Puget Sound area in locations ranging from Lynnwood to Federal Way and Bonney Lake. Another Seattle company, Greenstage, will put on “Romeo and Juliet” and the lighthearted “As You Like It,” with performances from Lynnwood to Burien. Children who can’t sit still to read might be entranced by the actors’ lively antics. (And if they’re not, you can leave early without sacrificing ticket money.)

Hi, art!

On rainy days, you might want to try a museum. Many local museums have free admission once a month, such as the Tacoma Museum of Glass (every third Thursday evening); the Seattle Art Museum (first Thursday); the Bellevue Arts Museum (first Friday) and the Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett (third Friday). The Children’s Museum of Tacoma offers free admission every first Friday, with additional free days in the summer, and free passes are available from the Pierce County or Tacoma Public libraries. In Bellevue, the KidsQuest Children’s Museum has free admission every Friday evening, or you can get KidsQuest passes from the King County Library System. KCLS also offers passes for the Bellevue Arts Museum and the Washington State History Museum.

One local museum is free all the time: The Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle displays sculptures from some of the 20th century’s best-known artists, including the scarlet soaring “Eagle” by Alexander Calder, or the enormous “Typewriter Eraser” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Mix in a little science at the museum’s “Neukom Vivar­ium,” a greenhouse with a 60-foot-long nurse log where visitors examine lichen and insects through magnifying glasses. Then play or picnic by the beach at the adjoining Myrtle Edwards Park, with Puget Sound waterfront. (Sculpture park guidelines: You can walk on the grass, but don’t touch any art except the bench sculptures.)

Bellevue Strawberry FestivalFun fests

Alison Holmes of Renton likes to take her children to fairs and festivals. “Keep an eye out for small-town festivals, like the Bellevue Strawberry Festival or Issaquah Salmon Days,” she suggests (see SummerMap's summer events calendar). Festivals offer opportunities for learning, such as exhibits of live farm animals, work by local artists, ethnic food and costumes, and local history lessons.

Finally, find stealthy ways to make summer learning fun. Spigarelli incorporates math into the day by inviting her daughter to count fruit snacks, then hiding some to see how many are left. She also suggests writing secret messages in Morse code or a foreign language (especially for treasure hunts with fun prizes), or writing each other letters. Holmes takes her children on outings to places like Bellevue’s Mercer Slough, where they observe the wildlife. “It’s a whole other world,” she says. Such outings often inspire more learning, as it did the time her son came back from a Blue Angels exhibit asking a barrage of questions about jet engines. Holmes also asks her children questions, such as “What makes it do that?” or “How can we find out more about this?” which encourage her kids to think about answers. With a little planning and effort, keeping those little brains brimming during summer doesn’t have to be expensive, Meyers says. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money to give children good memories.”

Loralee Leavitt loves writing and exploring with her family.

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