Never Bummer Summer Camp at Boulder Valley School District.

Never Bummer Summer Camp. (Photos: Boulder Valley School District).

Balancing play and learning to prevent the brain drain

Never Bummer Summer Camp.

Never Bummer Summer Camp. (Photo: Boulder Valley School District).

The summer brain drain isn’t inevitable. While test scores for most kids tend to drop between May and August, parents can thwart summer learning loss by encouraging a healthy balance between exploratory play and skill-building activities. 

Local educators emphasize that summer, first and foremost, is an opportunity to pause and be curious. Dr. Lori Kran, pedagogical director at Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder, noted, “At Shining Mountain Waldorf School, we know that healthy intellectual engagement thrives when our physical and social-emotional bodies are thriving as well, so we see summer as an extended opportunity to slow down and take a deep and delicious out-breath.” Too much summer homework may result in intellectual and physical exhaustion or anxiety about school or learning in general. 

“Keep the skills going – literacy, mathematics and music – but consider the notion that rich, intellectual content taught during the school year needs time to digest,” Kran continued. “You may think your student forgot, but truly, they are ruminating on content, and when the crisp fall returns again, they’ll be refreshed and ready to learn.”

To attain the right balance, Kran partners with teachers and families to foster age-appropriate summer engagement. Elementary school students should focus on unstructured play, often outdoors. “Start a garden and have your child share in the work,” she said. This is also a good time to dive into music lessons, establish routines or work on life skills such as shoe tying or basic budgeting. To practice math, parents can let kids take the lead on following a recipe to make dinner or a favorite dessert.

For upper and middle grades, time outdoors remains crucial. Hike, swim, work toward a running goal or simply take neighborhood walks, she said. High schoolers might pursue a summer job that aligns with their interests or “begin research on a capstone or passion project that could naturally extend into the school year,” Kran said. Others may wish to enroll in a testing prep course or tour colleges with a parent.

Because math and spelling test scores waver most during the summer, some schools will send home math and literacy assignments. Parents can also set their children up with online math and spelling games or ask teachers for resources. Khan Academy is a teacher-recommended site for both building academic skills and allowing kids to dig into their own interests.

Summer clubs, camps and activities at libraries and recreational centers maximize summer joy while providing physical, emotional and mental stimulation. Summer camps can be found for nearly every interest group, from theater, art and music camps to sports, gaming and farming workshops.

Jasmine Bailon, manager of childcare programs at Boulder Valley School District, says BVSD’s Never Bummer Summer Camp is designed to “make learning a fun and engaging adventure.” Camp is intentionally designed as an “educational journey,” she said. “The varied themes and play-based activities feel different than a traditional classroom, but children are still learning and engaging.”

For all ages, daily reading is paramount. Kran suggests regular family reading time with a mix of picture books, read-aloud chapter books and audiobooks. High schoolers with assigned readings for their fall English and languages classes can start a book club with classmates “to combine social time with getting homework done,” said Kran. Reading not only strengthens grammar and spelling skills but “discussing stories and ideas can enhance comprehension and critical thinking skills,” Bailon said.

Whether in front of a book or in the day-to-day freedom of summer, Bailon added, “Support your child’s natural curiosity by encouraging questions and exploration. This helps them develop a mindset of continuous learning.”

By Sarah Huber, Raised in the Rockies