The school holidays are into the home stretch. Just a couple of weeks to go!
If your kids are anything like mine, they've been relishing the opportunity to forget about school for a few weeks, relax and have fun. It’s a welcome pause for formal learning and exams, and a much needed break of the rules and regulations of school. Could that be anything but a good thing? The debate rages on...
While many will argue that children need the summer break to recharge their batteries, others have questioned whether the long summer holiday might cause children’s learning to regress. The knock on effects debated include possible difficulties transitioning to the next year’s class or from primary to secondary school, or perhaps extra difficulties with exams as they struggle to recall and apply previous learning.
So, does the science back up the speculation? There has been a great deal of research into regression during the summer breaks. In 2008, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reported studies appearing to confirm that pupils' reading and maths abilities go backwards because the summer break is too long. And in 2010, a team of researchers from the John Hopkins School of Education in the USA proposed that, "Without ongoing opportunities to learn and practice essential skills, kids fall behind on measures of academic achievement over the summer months. Research dating back over 100 years confirms the phenomenon often referred to as summer slide".
It seems that parents often introduce activities during the summer to keep learning fresh. In research carried out by learning company Pearson, two-thirds of parents planned some learning activity during the summer holidays, with activities such as homework, reading, online learning, practice SATs papers and literacy and numeracy mobile apps.
I'm not about to suggest abolishing the summer holidays (perish the thought!), but if you do there's lots you can do to encourage children to continue to learn through fun games and activities while at the same time allowing them to let their minds rest and refresh.
Ideas to keep a child’s mind active and engaged
The summer is a great time to help children figure out how to find their own things to do. Learning how to entertain themselves rather than just cry, "I'm bored!" will help them to develop confidence, resilience and resourcefulness. Supporting them as they design their own activities and games is every bit as important as a structured learning environment focussing on knowledge retention.
Some time this summer may inevitably have been spent watching TV or playing on games consoles, computers or tablets, but most of us know to limit these times even if they are deemed to be ‘educational’ pursuits.
But what if you're still hearing “I’m bored”? There are many companies who provide courses and activities, such as summer sports camps, art, circus skills, music clubs, acting courses etc. It might not be too late to join in with some summer classes, but these can be expensive and simply not feasible for many families, especially those with more than one or two children.
So here are some ideas that may help to refresh and reactivate those bright young minds during the remainder of the summer holidays. Remember, just because they're not in school need not mean that they're not learning.
These ideas aren't one-size-fits all. As you're reading, focus on activities suited to their ages, interests and abilities. Children are all individuals with different preferred learning styles, whether its hands-on, learning by seeing and then doing or learning by listening.
According to a report by the BBC: "as well as learning about nature, children who play outside develop better language skills, are fitter, and have fewer behavioural problems.
Research shows that children use five times as many words when they play outdoors compared to indoors, and that there’s a direct correlation between obesity and lack of time spent outside. There really is nothing like the freedom of playing outdoors to improve children’s physical and sensory development and their imaginations, not to mention the fun factor!”
Here are some ideas to for outdoor-based learning:
- Learn about nature and wild life by identifying plants, wild flowers and mini-beasts and encourage children to record findings in a homemade journal, either through pictures and/or notes. This will help to keep writing skills on track and develop them further.
- Go for long walks and collect things to make a nature table e.g. pine cones, flower petals, pieces of egg shell, leaves, feathers, sea shells etc.
- Carefully lift up logs and stones and rocks in rock pools to see what kind of creatures are living underneath. Put them in a plastic tub and children can use a magnifying glass to study them in more detail.
- Make a bird cake with the children so that they can watch and identify the birds that come along. The RSPB has a page to tell you how to do this.
- Build a den or even use sheets draped over a clothes line to make a great tent. Under adult supervision, older children can also learn how to build a camp fire and cook outdoors.
- There are Wildlife Trust Centres throughout the UK, who run pioneering schemes like WildPlay, Forest Schools and NatureTots, getting children and families in the great outdoors and helping to kindle an early interest in nature.
As a follow up to these activities, there is the opportunity to research further through books borrowed from the library, book shops, charity shops or from their own collection. This makes a welcome change from using the internet and builds on early research and reading skills.
You don’t need a garden to plant seeds and enjoy the thrill of watching them grow. Aside from the usual sunflower seeds, beans and carrot tops, there are many herbs that will grow beautifully on a windowsill - perfect if you don't have garden space - and even grown ups will have a sense of wonder and pride as the carefully nurtured seeds begin to flourish and to grow.
Children can learn and keep a record of how and when first shoots appear, how much water each plant needs, even what happens when they forget to water them or give them too much. What happens to seeds kept in the dark and why does this happen? What do they taste like? There are so many opportunities to learn about science and nature and even acquire some elementary culinary tips.
Leading on from growing herbs, we all know that children love to help in the kitchen.
Let them make their own cookery book and/or design a recipe sheet using images as well as words. Expect and allow them to make a mess. It’s no fun if the adult is constantly running about with cloths and dustpans and brushes. Another learning oportunity –the importance of a clean and tidy kitchen –before and after a cooking or baking session. Cooking with children offers all sorts of opportunities to expand their knowledge and learning and there are many books and websites devoted to the subject.
Shopping - from groceries to back to school clothes - is an essential part of any parent's routine, but it can also be a fun opportunity for learning:
- Make a shopping list using words with pictures for younger children who love to tick off items as they go round a supermarket. This is also a chance to learn about different types of food (fruit, vegetables, grain etc) and food groups.
- Talk about differences and similarities between different types of food.
- Build on numeracy skills by counting items, adding prices, counting out money.
- Look for familiar words and signs e.g. OPEN/ CLOSED, PUSH/PULL, LADIES/GENTLEMEN, TOILETS, FIRE EXIT, SALE etc.
- Look at different shapes of windows and doors –it’s amazing how many different window shapes can be seen above shops
Treasure hunts can be both an indoor and outdoor activity. Aim for simple items with illustrated clues for younger children to find, and written clues for older children.
Even reluctant readers will want to know where the next clue is to be found. You could even make it into a story or encourage them to write a story after the event, using the clues as inpiration.
Day trips and travel games
Trips to the local park, the seaside, an adventure playground, a wood or forest, a nature park and so on are all part and parcel of school holiday breaks. But “Are we there yet?” syndrome is also likely to strike after even 5 minutes in a car, plane, bus or train.
- Number plates games. Vehicle number plates can present a fun way to promote both reading and numeracy skills. Using the order of the letters on a number plate, who can make the longest word? For example, the letters BLD could be builds, buildings, blades, rebuild etc. The longest word wins!
- Add together the digits on a number plate (a useful game in a traffic jam).
- I Spy. No explanation needed except sometimes it’s hard for little ones to realise that the cow they spotted in a field is now out of view, which is a good opportunity to talk about seeing from another person's perspective.
- “I know a word and it rhymes with ….” Children make up their own short poem for others to guess the word e.g. “I know a word and it rhymes with plane, we’re sitting in one now and the word is ?”
- “First one to see...” a yellow car, a motor bike, a horse, a bird, a STOP sign etc. Keeping score is always fun too. The first child (or adult) who sees the object sets the next object to look for.
Schools and nurseries should encourage a love of reading and the joy of storytelling. Reading books can help to reverse the ‘summer slide’ in literacy skills.
To reverse the ‘summer slide’ where children may lose this important skill, there are fortunately still public libraries where children can attend story telling sessions and have fun choosing their own books to take home, read and be read to. Many libraries are also running a Record Breakers challenge right now, so it's well worth popping down.
And reading doesn’t have to be a bedtime activity. There is a wealth of knowledge and fun to be gleaned from books, both fiction and non-fiction, and it's great to demonstrate and foster that excitement for reading in children early, rather than see it as a chore.
Ask children open-ended questions about what they have read and understood, as books open up a world of imagination, new vocabulary and exciting things to learn. There are also many charity shops and second hand book shops, to which children can donate when they outgrow their current collection. This also presents an opportunity to talk about the purpose of charity shops and the people they are helping.
All children love building and construction activities. They can learn to problem solve, connect, understand and experiment with different material like LEGO bricks, Meccano, play dough, or simply wooden blocks or twigs and sticks from the garden, drinking straws, cardboard tubes and boxes etc.
Unless they ask for help, try to let them use their own imagination, come up with new ideas and find different ways to use the materials. There is no 'right way' when it comes to play, as much as you might want to 'correct' that wonky tower.
When children are actively engaged formulating their own concepts they are much more likely to remember the information and ideas that they have come up with. And of course, it is so much more satisfying and beneficial for them to have constructed something themselves rather than passively watching or taking instructions from an adult or older child.
Arts and crafts
Much like construction, getting active with paper and glue can be as educational as it is fun.
You don’t need to buy a lot of art and craft material. You will be amazed at what you can find around your own house. Creative activities benefit all areas of development, from physical (hand/eye co-ordination, fine and gross motor skills), sensory, intellectual , language, social and emotional.
Again, free play is great. Cardboard boxes, kitchen rolls and egg boxes provide endless opportunities to make robots, cars, buses etc. You will probably need to provide sticky tape, paints and glue and they'll do the rest.
But if your children are in the mood for prompts to get started, how about upcycling ie the creative re-use of old materials? You might give them an old lamp or storage chest to redecorate however they choose. Encourage them to find materials around the house to up-cycle and use their imaginations through open ended exploration and creativity - then step back and observe. If they end up making something completely different - great! No time spent being creative is time wasted.
Other activities might include making puppets from an old sock with two old buttons - great for imaginative play - or gathering old clothes to snip, glue and use to play dress up.
Through all these fun activities, children can continue to learn throughout the summer break and skills such as reading and writing can be retained and built upon ready for the next term.
If your child is nearing an exam period, or is passionate about an instrument, for example, you might find value in more structured summer learning.
This might include purchasing text books or software to work through together over the summer, or you might consider private tuition. There has been a lot of media coverage suggesting that there is a growing trend for personal tuition over the summer holidays - apparently “more than a quarter of parents of primary school aged children who were questioned for a recent survey said they planned to pay for extra lessons this summer."
The Institute of Education suggested that more than a quarter of students have tutoring before GCSE exams, and why not? If it suits your child, and they enjoy learning that way, it can be beneficial, particularly in challenging subjects such as maths, which currently dominates the private tuition market.
"Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of the subject," says Barbara Ball, professional officer for the Association of Teachers of Mathematics. "It’s a series of building blocks, where if you don’t understand a key point, it can be difficult to grasp what follows. One-to-one tuition can help fill the gaps."
Whatever route you take to supporting your children's learning this summer and beyond, remember that every child is different, every parent has their own approach, and there is never simply a right or wrong way of doing things. My philosophy is, be open to information and guidance, but have faith in your own approach - ultimately, do what feels right to support and nurture your child as best you know how.