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Mind Games: Parents can follow recipe for summer learning

July 7, 2014 Updated: July 7, 2014 at 9:17 am
Caption +
A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird feeds on sugar water Tuesday, July 1, 2014 at the Starsmore Discovery Center. Every Tuesday through July 29, the center hosts the class "All About Hummingbirds" 11:30am-12:15pm. The price is $3 per person and reservations are required. Call 385-6086 for reservations. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Whether you call it summer slide, brain drain or plain old learning loss, for parents, it's a conundrum that can cast a pall over sunny summer vacation.

How do you keep the knowledge children earned in the classroom from slipping away in a hot haze of baseball practices, video games and cartoon marathons?

Dallas-based author and teacher Barbara Dianis said two studies conducted in 2011 showed that youngsters who took a complete scholastic break over the summer lost two to three months of learning. But the good news is that parents don't have to pay for pricey summer camps or subject their children to flashcards and workbooks to keep young minds active.

Often, the recipe for summer learning can be as straightforward as mixing a dash of creativity, a few household items, a couple of simple games, some trips to the library and maybe a venture into the great outdoors.

Brain games

Laura Knight, instructional coach at Central Oak Elementary in Oklahoma, said her children enjoy bubble math: She blows bubbles and they make a sport of counting them, then adding and subtracting as more bubbles appear or as they pop.

"Who doesn't love bubbles? Any objects that they're playing with, they can add and subtract. With older kids, you can just turn that into multiplication and division," Knight said. "You can do it with blocks, cars, stuffed animals, anything they have. You can do it with snacks; teachers do that a lot of times during the school year."

Dianis suggested challenging youngsters to a language-arts version of I Spy and seeing who can rattle off the most nouns, adjectives and adverbs in a given space.

Parents shouldn't overlook classic word, board or card games as teaching tools, either. Mad Libs can offer hilarious English reviews, the card game Set encourages critical thinking and pattern recognition, and parents can borrow a pair of dice from a board game and roll out a math skills challenge for their youngsters.

"Just roll the dice,and they can practice adding the two numbers, subtracting the two numbers, multiplying or dividing. It's a real easy one, and kids love it, and so many of them need their math facts. You can also get dice at the teacher supply store that go up to 10 (sides)," said Dianis, who wrote "Don't Count Me Out! A Guide to Better Grades and Test Scores Pre K-12th."

While it's tempting to let kids do much of their summer learning via educational TV shows, online games and various apps, Knight cautioned parents to set reasonable limits on screen time.

"You need to interact ... and make sure they are on the right track. Because sometimes they'll just play the game and not really understand what they're doing," she said.

At the library

One of the simplest and most effective tactics parents can use is to read to or with their children every day, Knight said.

As if books and air conditioning weren't enough, the Pikes Peak Library District also hosts a multitude of free performances, art and science classes and animal programs.

"Anything that makes you think and increases your knowledge of real life will be helpful when you go back to school," said Nancy Maday, children's services manager at PPLD.

"7UP" is a program for ages 7 and older that focuses on books, art and science. Earlier this summer, kids created oil pastels inspired by the works of Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. Coming up are chemistry, electricity and magnetism experiments.

Summer reading programs for both younger kids and teens offer rounds of prizes, including coupons for fast food, T-shirts, journals and books. A similar program for babies and toddlers focuses on completing activities with parents, like playing patty-cake or going for a walk. About 25,000 toddlers, kids and teens participate in the reading programs, Maday said.

The new Library 21c is also a boon for keeping kids interested in learning while not in school. Makerspaces are opportunities to make things, Maday said. There's a vinyl and VHS digital conversion machine, computer software such as Adobe CS Cloud and NextEngine Scanner Software, sewing machines and woodworking equipment. It's all free and open to the public, though calling ahead for an appointment is required.

"And, of course, they can check out books while they're here," Maday said, "and just get them thinking about things."

Great outdoors

The Fountain Creek and Bear Creek nature centers are hubs of active learning for kids through the summer months. For $3-$4, both centers offer monthly public programs for several different age groups, including ages 2-3, 4-5 and 5-6. Topics this year include "Curious About Colors," "The Great Hunt," "Bug Dance" and "Busy Birds."

"It's a really great introduction to interactive learning and the outdoors," said Jamie Bequette, Bear Creek Nature Center supervisor. "We're trying to connect kids to nature at an early age so they can appreciate and respect it later in life."

Each program includes an indoor lesson, including puppets and hands-on activities, and an outdoor game or walk.

"They actually get out there and splashing in the creek and finding bugs, and are excited about insects," she said. "We debunk nature myths, like how spiders are yucky. Kids learn and understand why things like snakes are important in the natural world and shouldn't be looked at in a negative light."

The centers also offer full and half-day camps for kids in first through eighth grades ($80-$130), and some weekend and night programming the entire family can attend.

"We're introducing them to outdoor play," Bequette said. "Sometimes they don't know what to do outdoors, and that there are all kinds of things to discover. It's a great way to introduce kids to camps in general."



Ice Excavations

You will need:

Food coloring


Ice trays, muffin tins and/or zipper-lock bags

Interesting things to freeze (think walnuts, small plastic toys, sticks)

Tools to "unlock" the trapped toys (think a mallet, hammer or some cool water)


The night before (or any time in advance if you want to have fun play ideas at the ready), mix the food coloring with water and distribute in the ice trays, muffin tins, zipper-lock bags or similar vessels appropriate for the freezer. (Remember that water expands when frozen, which makes glass an unsafe option.)

Submerge toys, flowers or other interesting objects in what will become your blocks. Leave to set overnight.

When the sun comes out, bring out the jazzed-up ice and get the kids to attempt to free the treasures hidden inside by any means necessary. You can talk to them about how amazing it is that cold water melts ice like the hot sun does.

From "Recipes for Play: Creative Activities for Small Hands and Big Imaginations," by Rachel Sumner and Ruth Mitchener.

Fizzy Ice

You will need:

Several colors of food coloring

White vinegar

An ice tray

Baking soda

A tray or trough


Mix each food color with some vinegar in the ice tray and freeze it.

When the vinegar ice has set, pop out the cubes and place them in the trough or tray outside. Let the children enjoy sprinkling baking soda over the cubes, mixing them together, listening to the sound of the two reacting, watching the cubes turn brittle and foamy, then into colorful puddles, and making a big, fizzy rainbow soup.

When the little ones have finished, get the hose out and have fun washing away any spills.

From "Recipes for Play: Creative Activities for Small Hands and Big Imaginations," by Rachel Sumner and Ruth Mitchener.

Lemon Juice Invisible Ink

You will need:

Half of a lemon



Cotton swabs

White paper


A lamp or light bulb


Squeeze lemon juice into a bowl and add a few drops of water; mix juice and water with the spoon. Dip the cotton swab into the mixture and write a message on the white paper. Wait until juice mixture dries completely and becomes completely invisible. Then, parents can hold the paper close to the warm light bulb and let children see the message appear. Diluting the lemon juice with water makes it hard to see on the paper, but the organic substance oxidizes and turns brown when heated.

Source: Barbara Dianis

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