How to prevent summer learning loss (and still have fun)

Studies suggest we can prevent summer learning loss by engaging kids in summertime reading, math games, and hands-on STEM activities. But the benefits depend on making sure kids are truly stimulated — and having fun!

Here are the details, and tips for creating a rewarding, playful, educational summer.

two young boys making sandcastles on the beach

What is summer learning loss?

Some call it “summer learning loss,” others call it the “summer slide.”

Either way, the idea is the same: Without regular practice, new skills and knowledge fade. So many school kids experience reversals over the extended summer break.

The phenomenon has been documented in a number of countries, including Austria,  Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Paechter et al 2015; Meyer et al 2015; Jesson et al 2014; Shinwell and Defeyter 2017).

How much learning is lost?

Studies suggest that kids may lose anywhere from 25-50% of their school-year gains in mathematics (Paechter et al 2015; Thum and Hauser 2015; Cooper et al 1996).

Put another way, the average child may lose over two months’ worth of mathematical knowledge over the summer.

Children can backtrack in language skills, too — including reading, writing, and spelling (Thum and Hauser 2015; Burgin and Hughes 2008; Shinwell and Defeyter 2017)

But overall, losses in reading ability tend to be less dramatic than losses in mathematical ability.

Why? It’s probably a reflection of the “use it or lose it” phenomenon. During the summer, kids are more likely to continue reading — at least a little. They are less likely to practice their mathematical skills.

So how do we prevent summer learning loss? How do we stop summer slide?

Some researchers suggest that we make major changes in our schools. They propose lengthening the school year, or replacing the long, summer hiatus with several shorter vacation periods distributed throughout the year.

But we don’t have to wait for such changes to help our children. Nor do we have to turn the summer into a time of regimented, structured learning sessions.

Here are some suggestions for making the most of the summer — without sacrificing summer fun.

6 evidence-based tips to prevent summer learning loss

1. Get started on a summer reading program, and make sure your child is reading books that are both interesting and challenging.

Summer reading is important, but it doesn’t always boost skills.

For example, in one study, a summer reading program failed to have any effect on children’s literacy skills. Why? The children who participated got to choose their own books, and they consistently chose books that were too easy for them (Kim and Guryan 2010).

So when selecting books, it’s crucial to make sure you’re child is excited by the content. But you also want reading material that will stretch your child’s skills — introduce some new words and ideas.

Need help finding the right stuff? Visit your local library and talk with the children’s librarian.

2. Set aside some time to review mathematics concepts.

It’s unlikely that most kids will spontaneously practice the sorts of skills that will prevent learning loss in mathematics. And practice really matters. But don’t you have to hold daily lessons, or turn the summer into a tedious series of drills.

Studies show that learners can improve long-term retention when they space practice over multiple days. For instance, in recent experiments on adults, people who were asked to recall a set of facts for 35 days benefited most when they held review sessions every 11 days (Cepeda et al 2008).

This doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t practice their math skills more frequently. But it suggests that kids can retain specific math facts over the summer without resorting to daily sessions.

What about motivation? Here, we have the help of software developers. There are a number of educational computer games and apps that make practice fun.

For instance, DragonBox Numbers helps children aged 4-8 develop an intuitive understanding of numbers through game play. DragonBox Algebra 5+ is aimed at children 5 and up, and “secretly” teaches children algebra concepts. Apps for more advanced students, like DragonBox Algebra 12+ are also available.

In addition, try the free app, Bedtime Math. It was tested by researchers, and found to be helpful when used by families on an everyday basis (Berkowitz et al 2016).

3. Play “unplugged” number games to help kids sharpen their math skills.

Research indicates that young children can improve their intuitive understanding of numbers by playing certain board games. And such intuitions really matter: When kids lack a strong grasp of “how much” different numbers really represent, they perform more poorly in school (Mazzococo 2011). You can read more about it (and get instructions for making your own game) here.

In addition, young school children can practice their basic addition and subtraction facts by playing the simple — but excellent — board game, “Sum Swamp.” The game is a race, with players rolling dice and performing quick calculations to determine the number of spaces they must move. You can check the current price by clicking here to view the Sum Swamp game on Amazon.

Finally, I’ve found a number of books for children that help kids visualize mathematical concepts, and some include instructions for mathematical activities and games. See my recommendations in this Parenting Science guide.

4. Develop spatial skills through spatial rotation games and construction play

Experiments demonstrate that we can hone strong spatial skills through practice, and better spatial reasoning leads to enhanced performance in math and science.

For example, when young school children were asked to practice mental rotation tasks – tasks that required them to predict how two geometrical shapes would look when stuck together – these kids went on to show improvements in their ability to solve basic algebra problems (Cheng and Mix 2012).

For ideas on how to encourage spatial play, see my evidence-based articles about tangrams,blocks, and other activities for boosting a child’s spatial skills.

5. Take trips to museums, zoos, and nature sites. But don’t merely attend. Help children enjoy hands-on experiences, and engage in family conversations.

Kids learn more from museum experiences when they engage in hands-on activities. They also benefit when parents ask them to interpret what they see. 

For example, in one study, kids visiting an anthropological exhibit learned more when their parents asked them open-ended questions about the artifacts they encountered (Jant et al 2014).

What do you think this tool was used for? What do you think it is made of? How do you think it would feel to sleep on this mat?

In another museum-learning study, preschoolers showed more spontaneous focus on numbers and counting after their parents had engaged them in playful number talk and counting games (Braham et al 2018). How many dinosaurs are here? Let’s count together. 

And after you leave? Help kids consolidate what they’ve learned by asking kids what they remember.

As I explain elsewhere, one of the best ways is to encourage children to explain what they have learned. And a recent study reports links between parent-child conversations and retention: The more kids talked about a science lesson with their parents, the more they remembered later on (Leitchman et al 2017).

To learn more about the fascinating effects of explaining things to others, read my article, “How kids learn math and science: Stimulate learning by asking kids to explain.”

6. Choose STEM summer camps that emphasize informal, hands-on learning.

Research suggests that summer camps in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) can stoke children’s interest in STEM fields.

What makes a great program? Hands-on, activity-based STEM activities — like building, coding, robotics, or science labs — that allow kids to tinker and solve problems themselves. This isn’t the time for lectures and passively sitting by. Kids learn by doing (Roberts et al 2018).

To find an informal summer learning program near you, look online, and try contacting local schools, public libraries, museums, and zoos. Can’t afford to pay? Don’t assume you’ll have to. Ask about free and low-cost programs.

7. Can’t find an affordable summer camp? Create your own.

The nonprofit organization Reading Rockets offers materials for a 5-day DIY program called “River Rangers,” which helps kids learn about everything from the formation of rivers, to riverine ecosystems and the management of human drinking water. You can access these free materials, and other ideas to battle summer learning loss, here.

In addition, you will find links to many educational resources in my article, “Suddenly homeschooling? Here’s help for getting started.”

And if you’re looking for ideas for preschool science activities, see these Parenting Science pages.

8. Let kids explore interests that don’t fit into the standard, school-year curriculum

This is my personal suggestion, but it’s consistent with experiments: Personal curiosity is a major driver of learning (Gruber et al 2014). 

How many students have been bored by school, and then–one lucky day–they discovered an academic subject they were really passionate about?

Such discoveries can change lives, but many people never make them. When I was a child, extended summer breaks were a chance to indulge my curiosity about all sorts of things that never made it into the standard school curriculum–paleontology, astronomy, rock collecting, the geology of Mars, the search for extraterrestrial life, ancient history.

How would I have turned out without these opportunities? I don’t know, but I’m sure I would have been worse off. And for some kids, these extracurricular investigations lead to big things. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson traces the beginnings of his career to childhood experiences with a telescope.

Looking for some interesting topics? Here are some suggestions:

Animal behavior. David Attenborough has produced many outstanding educational programs about animals. These, combined with reading and hands-on activities can help your child develop a lifelong interest in biology. What to do? Get kids outside, and show them how to locate wildlife. See these Parenting Science tracking activities for more information, and don’t forget to let your child photograph what he or she sees. Nature photography doesn’t just help kids document their discoveries. It also encourages them to learn stealth and patience!

Computer programming. Researchers at MIT have developed a visual programming environment called Scratch. It permits kids to learn computer programming concepts — and create coded projects — even before they learn to read. Best of all, it’s free to use. All you need is a computer with an internet connection.

Dinosaurs. See my guide to resources about paleontology and dinosaurs for kids.

Space exploration. In additional to finding books on the subject, check out the local planetarium and Voyage to the Planets and Beyond (2004) , a fun BBC production that presents realistic (but imaginary) imaginary missions to Mars and other destinations. If you’ve seen Walking with Dinosaurs, the approach is similar. In addition, don’t miss NASA’s interactive website for kids, including their pages about Mars.

More ideas. Check out my recommended children’s books.

References: Summer learning loss

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Berkowitz T, Schaeffer MW, Maloney EA, Peterson L, Gregor C, Levine SC, Beilock SL. 2015. Math at home adds up to achievement in school. Science 350 (6257): 196-198.

Braham EJ, Libertus ME, McCrink K. 2018. Children’s spontaneous focus on number before and after guided parent-child interactions in a children’s museum. Dev Psychol. 54(8):1492-1498.

Burgin JS and Hughes GD. 2008. Measuring the Effectiveness of a Summer Literacy Program for Elementary Students Using Writing Samples. Research in the Schools, 15(2): 55–64.

Cepeda NJ, Vul E, Rohrer D, Wixted JT, and Pashler H. 2008. Spacing effects in learning: a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychol Science 19(11):1095-102.

Cheng Y-L and Mix KS. 2012. Spatial training improves children’s mathematics ability. Journal of Cognition and Development. Published online ahead of print doi:10.1080/15248372.2012.725186.

Connor CM, Morrison FJ, Fishman B, Crowe EC, Al Otaiba S, and Schatschneider C. 2013. A Longitudinal Cluster-Randomized Controlled Study on the Accumulating Effects of Individualized Literacy Instruction on Students’ Reading From First Through Third Grade. Psychology Science. 2013 Jun 19. [Epub ahead of print].

Cooper H, Nye B, Charlton K, Lindsay J, and Greathouse S. 1996. The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review. Review of Educational Research 66: 227–268.

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Jesson R,  McNaughton S, and Kolose T. 2014. Investigating the summer learning effect in low SES schools. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy. 37(1): 45–54.

Kim JS and Guryan J. 2010. The efficacy of a voluntary summer book reading intervention for low-income Latino children from language minority families. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 102(1): 20-31.

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Leichtman MD, Camilleri KA, Pillemer DB, Amato-Wierda CC, Hogan JE, Dongo MD. 2017. Talking after school: Parents’ conversational styles and children’s memory for a science lesson. J Exp Child Psychol. 156:1-15.

Mazzocco MM, Feigenson L, Halberda J. 2011. Impaired Acuity of the Approximate Number System Underlies Mathematical Learning Disability (Dyscalculia). Child Dev. 82(4): 1224-12377.

Meyer F, Meissel K, McNaughton S. 2015. Patterns of literacy learning in German primary schools over the summer and the influence of home literacy practices. J Res Read 40:1–21.

Paechter M, Luttenberger S, Macher D, Berding F, Papousek I, Weiss EM, and Fink A. 2015. The effects of nine-week summer vacation: losses in mathematics and gains in reading. EURASIA J Math Sci Technol Educ 11(6):1339–413.

Roberts T, Jackson C, Mohr-Schroeder MJ, Bush SB, Maiorca C, Cavalcanti M, Craig Schroeder D, Delaney A, Putnam L, Cremeans C. 2018. Students’ perceptions of STEM learning after participating in a summer informal learning experience. Int J STEM Educ. 5(1):35.

Sandberg Patton KL and  Reschly AL. 2013. Using Curriculum-Based Measurement to Examine Summer Learning Loss. Psychology in the Schools 50(7): 738-753

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Written content of “Preventing Summer Learning Loss” last modified 6/2019

Image of boys on beach by istock/ Spotmatik