The year is dwindling down—summer vacation is right around that proverbial corner. What do we do with our kids all summer?

Fun fact: it’s a common misconception that the school calendar is based on a former agrarian economy in the United States. In agrarian areas school actually consisted of a short winter term and a short summer term, as farming needs increased in the spring and fall. In urban areas, the cities would become so hot that school would be suspended during summer months. Eventually there was a push for a standard academic calendar across the country, and the school calendar was born.

While summer break is a great time for both students and teachers to refresh, it can cause students to lose a lot of the momentum they’ve built up throughout the year. The entire first month of school in the younger grades is spent reviewing concepts kids mastered at the end of the previous year. However, if summer vacation is utilized properly it actually can enrich the school year rather than inhibit progress.

From a former teacher at a top-five private school in the country, here are some tips to keep those little minds active over the long summer break.

First, the best thing you can do for your kids this summer is to give them a break, especially if they’re in a particularly demanding academic program. They’ve worked hard all year and deserve some time to play. Play does not equal screen time, although a little downtime—screens included—is good for everyone, especially on a rainy day. After a little R&R, it’s time to head outside.

The benefits of outdoor play have been proven again and again. When children get to play outside they’re exercising their brains more than you’d imagine. Kids exploring an unstructured environment leads to curiosity and discovery that cannot be found in a book or on the TV. Running around outside provides a different stimulation than kids have received all year in the classroom.

After a couple of weeks of non-academic time, introduce the idea of a journal. Think about your family’s schedule, and decide what frequency works best for you. Maybe your child writes in it at the end of the day a few times a week, or on Monday mornings after the weekend. Allow your child to pick out the journal and decorate it so they feel more ownership over it.Let them write about anything. Maybe a journal even turns into a creative writing exercise. A few topic ideas:

  • baseball practice
  • a playdate
  • something found outside
  • an argument
  • something exciting (a birthday party, a sports event, going to the beach)
  • something worrisome (a doctor’s appointment, losing a tooth, a thunderstorm)

Many studies prove that journaling improves your IQ and is good for your mental health. Being able to discuss your thoughts and feelings, whether in person or on paper, helps you work through the ups and downs of life. A journal is an unbiased, nonjudgmental listener. When your child writes in a journal, he is not only refining his communication skills, but practicing sentence structure and command. 

You know your child best. Some kids thrive on workbooks and drills. If your child is one of them, take her cue and buy the workbooks. For many kids, however, workbooks and drills are monotonous and intimidating. If your child falls into this category, spend time asking real-life math questions. Use math to:

  • determine how much time it will take to get home (counting city blocks, using division to calculate MPH)
  • point out shapes and patterns found wherever you are (the grocery store, the sidewalk, a restaurant)
  • follow a recipe
  • plan out the day’s schedule

Journaling and using math in real life are both activities that boost critical thinking skills, which are key to success in school and in life. 

The last piece of the puzzle is to have your child read. Kids should be reading every single day. Set a time—like before bed—when it’s time to pull out a book. For kids who are oppositional to reading, help them find a series they love; it will make them more excited to finish a book and begin a new one. Graphic novels can be less intimidating than traditional books, as they are filled with pictures.

A week or two before school begins is the time to more formally review the concepts your child left off learning in the spring. Reviewing a few concepts from that last report card will give him a confidence boost when he enters the classroom. Learning isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Some kids learn better in a classroom, some kids flourish when the setting is less structured. All kids can benefit from a summer vacation put to good use.

Lilly Holland

I'm a writer and stay-at-home mom to Penny, 15 months. Prior to spending my days with my daughter I was an elementary school teacher. After teaching, writing and being a mother became my full-time job and I haven't looked back since. Follow me on my website or Twitter