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Making the Most of a Summer at Home

Low-pressure ways to create fun and meaningful moments of learning
A father and daughter reading at the beach

Summer is officially here, but with many summer camps and enrichment programs canceled due to COVID-19, parents might feel at a loss for what to do with their children. With parent stress (and patience levels) being tested, experts agree that this summer is not the time to panic about learning loss or press to make up for missed class time, but instead to focus on creating fun and meaningful moments.

“For many families, the pandemic and school closures have been stressful. Summer is traditionally a time when many families switch gears from the busyness of the school year to focus on fun,” says Kathleen Lynch, a former teacher and current researcher at Brown University. “Rather than attempting to ‘catch up’ on academics over the summer, try building into your routine some learning activities that your child finds enjoyable.”

With some creativity, a little structure, and easing up on guilt or expectations, parents can get through the summer while making it fun and stress free.

A loose plan will get you through the day

Reflect on what worked this spring. Now that families have a few months of “homeschooling” under their belts, parents are no longer novices, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor James Kim, a literacy and summer learning loss expert. Take stock of what actually worked with your children over the past few months at home. You’ve probably tested different approaches with your children, so that should influence what you choose to do or let go.

Relax, but keep a little routine. Children often crave routine and structure. While it can be more flexible in the summer, sans schoolwork, many parents are still working from home at the same time. Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jal Mehta says to devise a schedule that everyone can live with and that’s sustainable. Don’t make it too regimented, and make sure kids have plenty of time to have fun and also do something constructive, he says.

Keep it simple

Personalize to each child. No child is the same, so if you have multiple children, be sure to cater to their individual interests and unique personalities — and don’t be too rigid in your expectations. “There’s no one size fits all. [A lot depends] on how old your kid is, what their personality is, their special needs, where you live, and the color of your skin,” says Ben Mardell, a researcher, educator, and expert on play and development.

Give choices. During the school year, many families may have focused exclusively on structuring time around schoolwork, but now that it’s summer, Kim suggests shifting toward letting children choose what happens during blocks of time. For instance, if you want an hour when your child reads, then give your child a choice: solo reading or listen to an audio book. For screen time, maybe it’s the choice between two specific shows. “Give your child a chance to have autonomy in choice, but make it a structured one,” Kim says. “Kids can feel success in everything that they can choose.”

Learning won’t always “look” like it. Mardell recommends thinking of these couple of months as an “old-fashioned” summer, where your child gets to go out and play then check back in with you during various points. Chances are, your child’s carefree playing is actually teaching a lot. “There’s a lot of learning going on in those activities, and learning in a lot of different dimensions, children are developing agency and ability to make decisions and have control over their lives and following their curiosities,” Mardell says. “In those moments of making up stories and doing things that foster creativity, children are enjoying themselves.”

"Give your child a chance to have autonomy in choice, but make it a structured one. Kids can feel success in everything that they can choose."

If you’re juggling work, make the most of a little quality time

Lead with your child’s interests. Put the math flash cards down (unless your child loves them) and instead pay attention to what interests your child. Maybe it’s coding or astronomy or basketball or baking. Whatever it is, Lynch says children will enjoy going in depth to their specific interests.

Get creative with the tech. Mehta recommends tapping into opportunities with educational value that are fun and interesting. “As a parent, maybe you feel like you’ve used up all the things that you can teach your child at this point, so it’s a great time to get some other things in the mix,” Mehta says. There are plenty of online camps and classes out there if your child is still open to the online experiences.

Lynch agrees remote summer programs can allow kids to play and learn along with their friends. Virtual chess games or group music lessons, for instance, may help to maintain social connections in addition to teaching new skills.

Or collaborate with your family, friends, and neighbors who might have something to share. In Mehta’s neighborhood, a group of parents in the community have started sharing videos on topics like cooking, making movies, or working out. “This way the child gets to do something that’s fun, but it’s almost like apprenticeship learning,” he says.

When in doubt, read. When you aren’t sure what to do, then reading, especially aloud, is always a great choice. “Reading books is a terrific way for kids to keep learning over the summer. Allow your child to choose books that interest them. Read books aloud. Ask your child questions about what they are reading,” Lynch says. “For older kids, try reading the same book as your child or organize a book club where several friends read and discuss a book together.”

Reading can be entertaining, but it can also build a sense of empathy, and transcend other activities while creating a lot of human interaction, says Kim. Feel free to build on a school’s summer book list by adding in something a child is already interested in to read for enjoyment.

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