There is no doubt that most children regress somewhat in their learning during the summer holidays; this is often viewed as almost inevitable. But is it? What schools and national guidelines could or should do about this is not under discussion here. However, there are a number of measures parents can take to reduce the extent of this, and in some cases, even to reverse it.
The academic regression appears to be greatest in the areas of literacy, yet these are the areas parents may be able to help their children most in.
Children are encouraged by their schools to do daily reading, weekly spelling and phonics (certainly the younger ones), times tables, maths work. Then, come summer, they have about 8 weeks, blissfully free with no work to do.
Now there can be no doubt that by summer children become tired and need a break. However, children being who they are, due to their youth, bounce back from this very soon. In two or three weeks they are well rested and ready to do new things.
Giving our children the experience of travel, new or old places, meeting infrequently seen members of the family or making new friends is an enriching and edifying experience that benefits them in many ways. Many families manage to fit in lots of exciting trips to far flung corners of the globe into their summer holidays, these experiences are invaluable. However, do they need to be exclusive - meaning that there is no room for anything else?
The summer is an excellent time to teach children to knit, cross stitch or make models. Grandmothers, aunts or uncles can be roped in for this task. Start on small projects, children tend to get carried away, but not completing an unrealistic project leads to disappointment. Although boys may want to opt out of such an activity, there are other similar projects that they could do.
Why – for example – does the “daily reading” regime have to stop? If the school does not give you a reading list, there are many available on the internet. Or better still, take your child to a bookshop, name their budget and allow them to choose books to read. If they chose them, they are far more likely to pick them up and read them later on.
If you read a little with your child each day, you yourself will develop a feel for the book and will be able to ask questions about content. Remember to include vocabulary questions too, such as: “what does this word mean?” (Do not assume that they always know, especially when they come across a word with more than one meaning.) Ask them to describe the characters to you, in terms of what kind of people they are. Encourage them to use lots of adjectives. Ask them how they might react to various situations? This is hypothetical, helping them give their own ideas, opinions – something that many children struggle with in tests, later on.
Could you perhaps spend 5 minutes each day going through all the times tables, perhaps just after breakfast? With 5 minutes a day invested, and care taken that all the times tables are covered not just “the easy ones,” huge gains can be made in this vital area. We all know from our own experience how there is no substitute yet for the knowledge of the times tables.
Using money, understanding about currencies and how they relate to one another in terms of the exchange rate, can make interesting sums with real life problems. You do not have to be a great mathematician yourself to do this. (The answers can then be checked readily on a currency converter website.)
Working out percentages of figures, such as prices in sales - 25%/50%/75% - of say 5.50 pounds is good, real-life practice. As is working out prices: “if one scoop of ice-cream is X, how much would 3 scoops for each of us cost?”
When travelling, and if you have access to the internet, you can look at the map of the country that you are visiting, locate large cities, rivers, mountains and lakes. Try to look at countries on a globe so that they get an idea of where things are in relation to other places. Look up interesting facts about the country. Each member of the family can choose one and remind the others of this from time to time. You could look at the history of the country in brief.
If you can lay your hands on some paper maps, children can learn to read these and help direct you when driving a car. You could still use a GPS for back-up if necessary. Getting them to navigate, even in cities is good practice for a number of skills.
Getting elderly relatives to recall incidents and events from their childhood is a vital and disappearing link with the past – real history with a personal connection. Encourage children to think of questions they might like to ask before-hand. (You might need to warn Great Aunt “Mathilda” that this is coming, so that she tries to think of the best stories). Children will have little patience, but this is such a valuable memory, both in terms of their understanding of by-gone times, as well as of people in their family, their ancestors. Some families are very good at keeping in touch and holding on to traditions, but others are struggling with this due to the more fragmented nature of family life in our times.
Younger children enjoy visits to farms, wild-life parks, petshops or zoos. (They get almost as much out of a visit to The Welsh Mountain Zoo as they do from an expensive trip to Kruger national Park or the Masai Mara Game Reserve – sorry parents!)
Trying out a variety of sports, cycling trips, hiking or scuba diving, bring them untold benefits in teaching them new skills, how to overcome apprehension, how to cope with exhaustion and a myriad others, which will pay great dividends later on.
Visits to the theatre are both memorable and instructive, but joint visits to the cinema are just as good. If you are watching a movie that has been adapted from a book, could you perhaps read the books as well and discuss it?
Shopping – even boring old grocery shopping – is an educational trip. Children can be asked to look for certain features of the labels “no added sugar” or “low sodium.” Older ones can be taught to start looking for the sugar or additive content of food. They can look for tomato paste with the least salt in it, or baked beans with less sugar. You could research additives, colourings, preservatives and find out why some are considered harmful. The skills they are learning, apart from maths and chemistry are life skills.
Almost any family trip or joint family outing can be turned into one with added educational benefit. You do not have to school and teach your children all summer long, in an arduous mimicry of school, but you can foster in them inquisitiveness and an enquiring mind. When and where possible, you can give the access to the internet and books to research topics.
Look at schedules and time-tables when going anywhere. Work out the time things take, the frequency of the service etc. These mathematical concepts can be difficult to get to grips with on a maths sheet, but when worked through a few times due to “necessity” they soon take on real meaning.
Cooking together is not only a great opportunity for gaining an understanding of how to use weights and measures and what they actually translate into in actual material terms, but also an opportunity to learn how to cook, to be together and learn about food traditions. Ask a friend or relative to teach you all a new recipe. It is lovely to work altogether and chatter. Experienced cooks can pass on many clever tricks that even you could learn. Do not exclude boys from these activities – never forget: some of the most famous chefs are, in fact, men.
Visiting museums and art galleries is a fantastic experience, however, beware of doing too much. Visit one exhibition at a time, then go home and read about the artists. Many of them had interesting lives, not just Van Gogh! They could find 5 other paintings, for example, painted or sculpted by the same artist. They could check of any are being sold through auction houses and how much they are worth now.
Working in the garden, helping grandparents with weeding and the like is an opportunity to ask questions about plants and insects and compost and many other things children growing up outside the UAE cannot really relate to. Many of them do not know what rhubarb is, let alone have ever tried it!
If you are not lucky enough to go on an interesting trip, just going on a walk in the dark can be an exciting learning adventure. They can look at the stars, investigate shadows and scare each other a few times!
The same applies to concerts, not just Glastonbury, but also more traditional music. Famous composers had interesting lives, loves and hates. Mozart was fascinating. Let them look into their history, listen to parts at least of other works by them. If they can play an instrument this exercise becomes even more valuable. Modern songs were often prompted by an event in the artists life. What made them write certain songs: “Imagine” – by J Lennon, “Feed the World” – by Band Aid or even Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song.”
When visiting historical sites, research them: how and why they were significant? A visit to Rome is far more dramatic if they understand about gladiators, the events that happened there and who sat where. Get them to think of the past as a story and find out about it together. If you are a family of two or more, you can each read up about a place you are going to visit, taking it in turns to be the “tour-guide” at that place. Children like to show-off and will embrace this, remembering far more than if you read an extract to them!
When in a new country, encourage your children to learn a few words of the language. If you lead by example they will be less embarrassed at making mistakes.
Card games, chess, memory games and puzzles all improve concentration and logical thinking. Children love quizzes, especially if there is a “prize” - like ice-cream or a movie to be “won.” There are many age-appropriate quiz books around for children and you can include a realistic handicap for yourself.
Finally, there is the option of reading to them yourself. Choose a long, but very exciting story, such as Harry Potter, the children’s version of 1001 Arabian Nights or Greek Mythology. There is magic in sitting together as a family for a half-hour a day and listening to a story. This fosters imagination, helps attention and gives them a very good story, potentially of a higher reading level than they are at present capable of tackling. This in turn will help extend their vocabulary.
If all of this sounds like hard work consider this: if you succeed in awakening their curiosity, the rest will take care of itself. Your role is merely to get the ball rolling and to facilitate the research; your children will do the rest!