How to prevent summer learning loss (and still have fun)

© 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Summer learning - boys on digging on the beach, by Sherif Salama

Some call it "summer slide." Others call it "summer learning loss."

Either way, the idea is the same: Without regular practice, new skills and knowledge fade. So many school kids experience reversals over the extended summer break.

The phenomenon has been documented in a number of countries, including Austria,  Germany, and the United Kingdom (Paechter et al 2015; Meyer et al 2015; Shinwell and Defeyter 2017).

But most research has been conducted in the United States, where summer breaks may last as long as 10-12 weeks. And here the effect can be dramatic.

According to studies conducted before the 21st century, the average child in the U.S. was losing more than two months' worth of mathematical knowledge over the course of the summer (Cooper et al 1996).

Reading skills suffered too, but mostly among children of lower socioeconomic status. And these patterns are consistent with the "use it or lose it" explanation.

During the summer, children from middle class and affluent families tend to read. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds -- who typically have less access to books -- don't. 

As a result, kids living in more enriched environments often improve their reading skills over the summer. Less privileged kids lose ground.

By contrast, most children -- affluent or otherwise -- tend to skip mathematics practice over the summer. So the loss of mathematical skills is common among children of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

How can we fight summer learning loss? How do we stop summer slide?

Some researchers suggests we make major changes to our schools—lengthening the school year, or replacing the long summer hiatus with several shorter breaks distributed throughout the year.

But we don't have to wait for such changes to help our children now. Nor do we have to turn the summer into a time of regimented, structured learning sessions. Here are some evidence-based suggestions for avoiding summer learning loss.

1. Take a family trip to the library, and find books that both
(a) capture your child's interest, and
(b) stretch you child's reading skills.

Summer reading is important, but it doesn't always boost skills. That's because children need books that are both interesting and challenging. When either component is missing, they are less likely to improve.

In one study, a summer reading program failed to have any effect on children's literacy skills, and the researchers think they know why. The children who participated got to choose their own books, and they consistently chose books that were too easy for them (Kim and Guryan 2010).

2. Set aside some time to review mathematics concepts -- and make it fun.

It's unlikely that most kids will spontaneously practice the sorts of skills that will prevent learning loss in mathematics. And practice really matters. But don't you have to hold daily lessons, or turn the summer into a tedious series of drills.

Studies show that learners can improve long-term retention when they space practice over multiple days. For instance, in recent experiments on adults, people who were asked to recall a set of facts for 35 days benefited most when they held review sessions every 11 days (Cepeda et al 2008).

This doesn't mean that kids shouldn't practice their math skills more frequently. But it suggests that kids can retain specific math facts over the summer without resorting to daily sessions.

And what about the potential for tedium? Here, we have the help of software developers. There are a number of video games and educational apps that make practice fun.

For instance, DragonBox Numbers helps children aged 4-8 develop an intuitive understanding of numbers through game play. DragonBox Algebra 5+ is aimed at children 5 and up, and "secretly" teaches children algebra concepts. Apps for more advanced students, like DragonBox Algebra 12+ are also available.

Then there is the link between spatial skills and mathematics.

Can you stem summer learning loss in mathematics by boosting spatial skills? That seems likely.

For example, when young school children were asked to practice mental rotation tasks – tasks that required them to predict how two geometrical shapes would look when stuck together – these kids went on to show improvements in their ability to solve basic algebra problems (Cheng and Mix 2012).

For ideas on how to encourage spatial play, see these evidence-based articles about tangrams, blocks, and other activities for boosting a child's spatial skills.

And what about everyday, offline playful experiences with numbers? Research suggests that many children  never learn an intuitive sense of number, that feeling for “how many" or “how much" a particular number represents. As a result, these kids continue to make very basic errors as they struggle through school (Mazzocco et al 2011).

So games and experiences that make kids count, measure, and compare quantities are very helpful.

For preschoolers, check out these number activities and mathematical board games.

For older children, check out my math book recommendations on this page.

3. Take those trips to museums, zoos, and nature sites. But don't merely attend. Help children enjoy hands-on experiences, and engage in family conversations.

When researchers tested the effectiveness of a family museum visit on children's learning, they found that certain strategies made an important difference (Jant et al  2014).

Kids learned more when their museum activities included a hands-on component, and their parents asked them open-ended questions. For instance, if children were visiting an anthropological exhibit, they benefited from being asked questions about the artifacts they saw. What do you think this tool was used for? What do you think it is made of? How do you think it would feel to sleep on this mat?

4. Let kids explore interests that don't fit into the standard, school-year curriculum

This is my personal suggestion, but it's consistent with experiments showing that curiosity is a major driver of learning (Gruber et al 2014). It's also consistent with everyday experience.

How many students have been bored by school, and then--one lucky day--they discovered an academic subject they were really passionate about?

Such discoveries can change lives, but many people never make them. When I was a child, extended summer breaks were a chance to indulge my curiosity about all sorts of things that never made it into the standard school curriculum--paleontology, astronomy, rock collecting, the geology of Mars, the search for extraterrestrial life, ancient history.

How would I have turned out without these opportunities? I don't know, but I'm sure I would have been worse off. And for some kids, these extracurricular investigations lead to big things. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson traces the beginnings of his career to childhood experiences with a telescope.

Looking for some interesting topics? Here are some suggestions:

Dinosaurs. See this guide to resources about paleontology and dinosaurs for kids.

Animal behavior. David Attenborough has produced many outstanding educational programs about animals. These, combined with reading and hands-on activities can help your child develop a lifelong interest in biology. Animal tracking activities can teach kids to pay close attention to clues. Digital photography gives kids a way to document their outdoor activities—and encourages them to learn stealth and patience.

Architecture and engineering. Bridges: Amazing Structures to Design, Build & Test (Kaleidoscope Kids)by Carol A. Johmann, is an engaging, well-written “how-to" book that stimulates creative thinking and experimentation in older kids (ages 8 and up). As they build their own bridges, kids will learn about architecture and mechanics.

Space exploration. In additional to finding books on the subject, check out the local planetarium and Voyage to the Planets and Beyond (2004) , a fun BBC production that presents realistic (but imaginary) imaginary missions to Mars and other destinations. If you’ve seen Walking with Dinosaurs, the approach is similar. In addition, don’t miss NASA’s interactive website for kids, including their pages about Mars.

More ideas. Check out these recommended children's books.

References: Summer learning loss

Bell SR and Carrillo N. 2007. Characteristics of Effective Summer Learning Programs in Practice. New Directions for Youth Development 114: 45-63.

Cepeda NJ, Vul E, Rohrer D, Wixted JT, and Pashler H. 2008. Spacing effects in learning: a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychol Science 19(11):1095-102.

Cheng Y-L and Mix KS. 2012. Spatial training improves children's mathematics ability. Journal of Cognition and Development. Published online ahead of print doi:10.1080/15248372.2012.725186.

Connor CM, Morrison FJ, Fishman B, Crowe EC, Al Otaiba S, and Schatschneider C. 2013. A Longitudinal Cluster-Randomized Controlled Study on the Accumulating Effects of Individualized Literacy Instruction on Students' Reading From First Through Third Grade. Psychology Science. 2013 Jun 19. [Epub ahead of print].

Cooper H, Nye B, Charlton K, Lindsay J, and Greathouse S. 1996. The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review. Review of Educational Research 66: 227–268.

Jant EA, Haden CA, Uttal DH, Babcock E. 2014. Conversation and Object Manipulation Influence Children's Learning in a Museum. Child Dev. 85(5):2029-45.

Kim JS and Guryan J. 2010. The efficacy of a voluntary summer book reading intervention for low-income Latino children from language minority families. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 102(1): 20-31.

Kraft MA, and Monti-Nussbaum M. 2017. Can schools enable parents to prevent summer learning loss? A text messaging field experiment to promote literacy skills. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science [Internet]. 674 (1) :85-112.

Mazzocco MM, Feigenson L, Halberda J. 2011. Impaired Acuity of the Approximate Number System Underlies Mathematical Learning Disability (Dyscalculia). Child Dev. 82(4): 1224-12377.

Meyer F, Meissel K, McNaughton S. 2015. Patterns of literacy learning in German primary schools over the summer and the influence of home literacy practices. J Res Read 40:1–21.

Paechter M, Luttenberger S, Macher D, Berding F, Papousek I, Weiss EM, and Fink A. 2015. The effects of nine-week summer vacation: losses in mathematics and gains in reading. EURASIA J Math Sci Technol Educ 11(6):1339–413.

Shinwell J and Defeyter MA. 2017. Investigation of Summer Learning Loss in the UK-Implications for Holiday Club Provision. Front Public Health. 5:270.

Content of "Preventing Summer Learning Loss" last modified 5/2019

Image of boys on beach by Sherif Salama / flickr

Image of children at aquarium by Quinn Dombrowski / flickr

Image of boy in the library by Oddharmonic / flickr

Image of children playing with shapes by Nicholas Wang /flickr