School’s out and summer’s here, but the learning doesn’t have to stop! In fact, with warm, sunny days and the shakeup of the regular schedule, summer can be the perfect time for the entire family to take learning to a new level. With a little advance planning and a few creative ideas (many borrowed from parents more creative and organized than myself!), you can keep your kids learning, happy, and busy all summer long (without going crazy yourself).
How to Encourage Your Kids Learning During the Summer
Learning and growing isn’t just a nine month school year activity. As Mark Twain so famously said, “Never let schooling get in the way of your education.” So where to begin? Here are my top tips for under-the-radar summer lessons at home!
1. Decide What a “Successful” Summer Looks Like for Your Family.
Have you ever finally gotten some free time, only to be totally overwhelmed deciding what to do with it? Summer can be like that. You may have grand plans of vacationing at the beach, camping camping at a national park, organizing a family reunion, or finally getting that garden planted. And of course we also want to create magical family memories for our kids.
But you know what, you don’t have to do all the 1000+ arts and crafts, all the baking, and all the DIY backyard playgrounds Pinterest might suggest to give your kids–and yourself–a great summer!
You might have noticed how most self-help books–be it on organization, leadership, business, or the like–start with creating a vision or picture of the goal. I’m a speed reader and I like to get things done, so I’m always a little impatient with this “envisioning” step, but I’ve learned over the years just how important it really is.
Really stop and think through what your family’s idea of a successful summer would be. This can be very different from family to family, and very different from year to year.
Going through this step can make it easier to say “yes” or “no” to the many terrific ideas your kids are sure to contribute if you choose to involve them in this brainstorming process (and I hope you do!).
Ideas to Think About (Repeat for Each Member of the Family)
- What are your favorite things to do? What leaves you feeling recharged? How can you do more of those things this summer?
- What are your least favorite things to do? What do you need a break from? How can you minimize or manage those things this summer?
- What skills or subjects do you want your kids learning about this summer? How will you do it?
- What’s something new you’d like to learn or try? What do you need to get started? (I like this question for kids in particular so they can learn what goes into executing their ideas.)
Now on to the action!
2. Write Down Your Summer Bucket List and Display it
Once you come up with your summer theme and must-dos, don’t commit it to memory or close it up in a notebook. Write it down and display a summer bucket list of favorite activities and new adventures. What better reminder of what you decided to pursue as a family, and why!
As you look over the ideas, an “anchor” or theme for the summer might emerge. Circle or highlight items related to your theme and consider them your must-dos. You might even come up with a word or phrase that captures your goals for the summer–keeping you anchored while still leaving plenty of room for being spontaneous.
My contributions to the list usually include a fair share of kids’ learning opportunities (disguised as fun) that I’ve already determined are in the family budget, like trips to a museum or the zoo, visiting the botanical gardens, or hikes at our favorite nature center.
Of course, I usually have several other ideas in mind to keep the kids learning and engaged over the summer months, but I don’t always let them in on my plans! That’s the beauty of kids learning outside of the classroom…sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening!
By narrowing down the priorities in the beginning, you can feel satisfied even if you don’t get to everything on the bucket list, knowing you did the important things and the rest you can save for next summer.
Ideas for Your Summer Bucket List (Tailor to Your Chosen Theme)
- Trip to a zoo or museum you haven’t been to before.
- Attend a local Mini-Maker’s Faire
- Volunteer at your local soup kitchen or convalescent home
- Invite a neighbor over for dinner
- Plan and build a woodworking project together
- Plant a fruit tree
- Hold a family version of “Chopped” (My kids love this one ever since they took the Kids Cook Real Food Course)
- Master 5 new recipes with foods you’ve never tried
- Pick a language to learn as a family (Powerspeak is a great kid-friendly online program)
- Fly a kite
- Build a fort
- Organize a family field night at your local park
- Start a read-aloud tradition at night (one chapter)
- Find a new biking trail
- Learn to fish
- Pick strawberries or blueberries and make homemade freezer jam
- Pick an empty wall (even in garage) and paint a family mural
- And many other fun ideas on my summer list!
3. Use Visual Reminders to Stay on Track
Cultivating good habits and self-discipline are an important part of learning for young (and older) children. Especially while adjusting to a schedule, it’s easy to go hoarse reminding kids over and over to clean up, to do their chores, not to track dirt in the house…and a million other things.
Studies show that giving kids visual reminders of important rules, routines, or schedules enhances learning by fostering an “I can do this” sense of independence and control, not to mention a language-rich environment. It also cuts down on parental nagging.
I can tell my kids to flush the toilet and wash their hands a thousand times, but if I post a quick sign in the bathroom–maybe with a funny picture to back up the words–I’m amazed how much better they receive it.
Just a warning–once you start this it’s hard not to go overboard! Balance is key. A few well-chosen signs do the trick, and you do have to change them up from time to time.
Ideas for Visuals
- A simple and to-the-point checklist for screen time control (very smart!)
- Behavior and goal-setting charts for a variety of ages and needs
- Inspirational or character-building quotes to give food for thought
- A morning routine board for littles
- Help kids learn to take responsibility for their own entertainment by setting up a Boredom Jar!
4. Create Independent Learning “Centers” Throughout Your Home
I’ve written before about my interest in the Montessori educational philosophy and how I try to use it as guide around our house. This model places great importance on setting up the environment thoughtfully to allow greater independence and learning.
Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean getting your home in perfect order before the summer begins (I wish…ha!). It does mean taking a fresh look at your home set-up and asking yourself how things can be arranged to support independent learning at home.
Start by simply gathering the physical supplies for the learning activities you want your kids to do, and then group them by categories in your home. You can pick even just one or two centers for starters and then change them periodically as your kids’ needs change.
Ideas for Learning Centers
- Music: Set up a music “center” so kids will know where to find their instruments and music. Post a chart for each child to record their practice. Nearby, set up a listening center with a CD player and headphones so younger children can listen to music or audiobooks from the library.
- P.E.: If you want to get the kids outside and moving as much as possible, make bikes and sport equipment easily accessible. Mark the spots where they should be returned, or even snap a picture of how it should look and post it (visuals!). Give them a designated garden spot and show them how to plant, water, and weed it. Create or buy a set of challenge cards kids can flip through for physical activity. Hang a climbing rope, a swing, or set a schedule for visiting the park and post it.
- Reading: Set up a cozy book corner with a box of reading books for each child from your bookshelf or library. For younger children, I love these sandpaper letter and number books. For elementary to middle school children, try the Delight-Directed Learning series by Sarah Janisse Brown, which helps kids learn how to independently summarize and capture favorite tidbits from library books on subjects of their own choosing.
- Science/Nature: Set up a small table on a porch or in a garage or breezeway. Let kids display their “treasures” they find in nature. Keep a magnifying glass or two handy, and maybe a pair of binoculars and a bird-watching book or flower-identification guide. I really like Dover coloring books, which are inexpensive and can be more interesting than a reference book but still have tidbits of information.
- Gardening: Get kids learning about botany and eating healthy with their own gardening projects. This summer, we are doing this Garden Labs activity book together and the kids have their own garden space in the backyard.
- Cooking: Keep kid-approved recipes and baking/cooking tools within reach of older kids, and involve them in meal planning, shopping, and cooking. In the kitchen kids can learn about chemistry, measurement, budgeting, healthy eating, practical life planning, and service to others. Win-win! (Also check out this awesome “Kids Cook Real Food” online cooking class for kids!)
- Board games: Another learning center could be a shelf of board games. Many of these are more educational that you would think! Monopoly has been my kids’ favorite game of late and they have been asking me questions about money they never have before! My little kids also love this Busytown game.
- Writing: Bring back a dying art! Supply children with envelopes, stamps, pencils and pens, stationery, an abridged dictionary, and the addresses of some of their favorite people near and far. (Keep this on a tray high enough that small children can’t get it, but your independent writer can.) It’s incredible to see the satisfaction a 6, 7, or 8 year old will get from being able to write, address, and send a letter without any help from Mom or Dad, except for the occasional spelling word! And then they have the fun of looking forward to something in return in the mail.
- Employment/Finance: If your kids seem too old for any of these ideas, check out this resource for teens who are ready to find their inner entrepreneur.
I could go on, but here are some other great ideas. Remember to just focus on the ones are important to you!
4. Use Free Local and Online Programs
Summer camps are an obvious way to keep kids learning through summer, but be sure to check city or county programs first as these are often less expensive. Check your local library for their summer reading program or discounted park passes.
When screen time is an option, make it quality. Our family loves Reading Rainbow’s Skybrary Family, which lets kids safely browse a huge variety of topics, check out e-books, and watch video field trips.
Other Programs and Ideas
- Kahn Academy offers self-paced math, reading, history, art and music appreciation as well as coding and animation courses.
- Visit the National Parks’ Junior Ranger website for impressive free downloadable booklets on a range of natural science topics and information on collecting badges by visiting a national park. If you have a fourth grader, check out the National Parks’ Every Kid in a Park initiative for free and discounted park passes.
- Join this awesome Kids Cook Real Food program (watch several lessons for free)!
5. Model the Learning Behavior You Wish to see in Your Kids
So many times we work ourselves into a (pleasant) frenzy researching the best way to teach, entertain, or feed our kids. But what about Mom and Dad?
Consider your own interests and goals this summer. Make time to do something relaxing and invigorating. Schedule a babysitter for dates, look up a local art class, or set aside a day of the week to work on something that’s been on the back burner but would be very rewarding. And don’t feel guilty about it!
Ultimately, we all know that kids learn by watching our habits (no pressure!), and we can only give them our best when we take time to recharge ourselves.
Learning Ideas for Mom and Dad
- Take a local art or woodworking class
- Journal or scrapbook
- Sign up for horseback riding lessons
- Join a casual sports league
- Schedule time at the beach or pool–alone!
- Dine “al fresco” for a no-cook, no-prep Italian picnic
- Try a new sport or exercise and involve the kids!
- Set up an easel and paints by a window. Moms can “play” too!
6. Don’t Forget to Relax and let Kids Learn Naturally!
Kids learning at home doesn’t look like it does in the classroom, and that’s ok. Practicing piano, shooting hoops, helping Mom or Dad cook, and even just running and playing outside are all valuable and essential forms of learning. In fact, the most important conversations I’ve ever had with my kids have come from quality downtime with no agenda.
Talking with our kids requires no research, no organizational skills, and no clean up. Take time to listen and share with those you love this summer, and treasure what results.
How do you go about setting plans for the summer? Can you think of other ways to keep kids learning? Please share!