DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
BURNET — It’s summer time. For thousands of school kids across the Highland Lakes it means one thing: summer break, the celebration of time away from school, from learning.
But hold on one second. While summer break is usually a two-and-a-half month hiatus from school, should it be a break from learning? Probably not, because educators do worry about the dreaded “summer slide,” in which students enter the next school year a bit below where they might have left in May.
“I have two words for helping kids avoid the summer slide,” said Darlene Denton, the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District’s Parent Resource Center director. “Read, read, read and sunscreen.”
OK, it’s a bit more than two words, but she’s just trying to stress the importance of keeping kids of all ages reading over the summer. But Denton pointed out that parents and caregivers don’t have to just pull out a book from a school reading list.
“I would introduce kids to a fun chapter book,” she said. “If you had one you enjoyed while growing up, maybe get it and read it together with them. Or just let them pick the book.”
Often, when kids say they don’t like reading, they are really saying they don’t like the book someone else picked for them.
One of Denton’s favorite chapter books for kids is the children’s version of “Marley and Me,” which features the adventures of a dog and its family. She admitted the ending brings tears, but the story along the way is full of fun and laughter.
“And the kids just love it,” Denton added.
In any activity geared to help children keep learning over the summer, one of the best pieces of advice centers around giving kids the lead in picking it, designing it and doing it.
Jennifer Jones homeschools her children — all 8 of them. They range from ages 7-18, so she knows the value of managing a variety of interests. And while she is a homeschooling parent, the ideas she uses for teaching her kids can be easily incorporated by others for summer or anytime.
“My personal goals for homeschooling are to teach my children to be independent learners and to spark a love of lifelong learning in each of them,” she said.
Part of how she does that is letting her children follow their own interests. One bit of advice for parents over the summer is to follow that example with some project-based learning.
“The idea is that your kids think of things they are interested in doing or making over the summer and then you allow them to make it happen,” Jones said. “This can be done at any age with small projects and big projects. The key is to allow them to do as much on their own as they can and only help out when you see them struggling or when they ask you to.”
But not everything has to be a project. Denton pointed out that the summer is a great time for parents to help their kids work on “life skills” such as washing clothes, cooking and grocery shopping. Those activities can also become learning experiences depending on how parents approach them.
“Most parents dread taking their kids to the grocery store, but you can turn it into something educational and fun,” Denton said.
She recommended having kids count out items such as fruit, compare prices, pick out new foods to try or simply task them with finding items on the shopping list.
“Summer is a great time to be a bit creative in how you teach,” Denton said. “They can try cooking, which brings in so many math aspects. Or you can get them gardening. Even if you don’t have a garden or don’t like gardening, you can find somebody who does and ask them to help.”
Both Jones and Denton stressed getting outside the “traditional” classroom setting. For Jones, this means opening up opportunities for kids.
“Get out and experience life,” she said. “Give your kids a true summer break and watch them explore their world and learn from every moment.”
While “summer slide” does worry some educators and parents, Jones said it shouldn’t be the No. 1 summer concern or issue.
“Our kids today are rarely given this time off as we tend to worry more and more about keeping up with school over the summer,” she said. “There is great value in giving them some time to just be kids. Get out and play with them.”
Jones pointed out that kids absorb so much by exploring and playing in the world around them. A trip to one of the state parks can include identifying bugs and plants as well as learning to read a map and compass. Building dams and rock towers at the Kingsland Slab or other creeks and rivers gives them a hands-on physics and engineering lesson. Let them get messy, she added, with interesting science projects.
“If your child needs to work on a particular subject over the summer, try to think outside the box and avoid doing things they would do in school,” Jones said. “For example, instead of math worksheets, play card games.”
With a little thought and creativity, many daily activities and family trips can become learning experiences. Denton pointed out that the summer road trip is easy to turn into an educational experience, even while driving cross country or across the state.
“Play ‘I Spy,’ or when they see a sign with miles or numbers on it, have them add them up,” Denton said.
And once you arrive at the destination, whether a trip to the museum, park or even the relatives, give the kids the freedom to explore and learn more about it. Jones pointed out that many parks and museums offer educational components.
Despite all the emphasis on education and school, both Denton and Jones reminded parents to keep it fun and help kids remain open to the things around them.
“Learning does not have to be limited to textbooks, worksheets, tests, grades, desks and structure. Everyday life can offer experiences that are equally, or even more, educational,” Jones said. “As homeschoolers, we don’t ‘do’ school; school is happening all the time. Life is school.”