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New York Times: Summer Learning Fun via Email and Download

NEW YORK -- June 14, 2012 -- As with many things, some parents worry disproportionately about "summer slide." Do children forget everything they've learned over the long summer break? It depends on how and where they spend it. If you're reading my words, it's likely that your children have access to reading materials at home. Children who don't read over the summer lose two to three months of reading development while children who do gain a month - but research shows that children surrounded by reading material don't appear to be at much risk. Summer reading is as effective as summer school, and it doesn't matter what children read, as long as the reading is happening.

But even if "summer slide" is something of a manufactured concern for the kinds of parents who worry about these things (I don't really want to be that parent, but who are we kidding?), many of us want to keep our children engaged over the summer.

"You don't want to give children the idea that learning is something you need a vacation from," said Tiffany Cooper Gueye, chief executive of BELL, a national nonprofit program dedicated to transforming the academic achievements of children living in under-resourced urban areas. "Many kids don't necessarily need a formal program, just encouragement to maintain their interest in things they already love." BELL does provide structured programs, but creates an environment that Dr. Gueye says "doesn't look or feel like school."

I recognize the mistake I've made over the years when I've worried that one child or another would forget hard-earned gains in skills. As a younger parent, I was prone to setting goals that set us up for failure: Worksheets, reading logs. I've (mostly) wised up. I haven't bought a single new "summer skills" book this year, and I'm planning to count on ordinary activities to keep my children engaged. Regular library trips, with visits to the nonfiction shelves for bird guides or the physics of sand castles. Cooking. The science of marshmallow roasting.

But I have found two easy and free nonprofit resources that send a daily learning opportunity straight to my e-mail in-box. Wonderopolis and Bedtime Math offer the opportunity to mix things up, talk about subjects we might not ordinarily explore and have a little mental stretch. I've written about Bedtime Math before. Nightly missives combine a new topic with three levels of math questions asked in words, not numbers. (Giraffes sleep only two hours a day. If cats sleep for 12 hours a day and dogs sleep for 10 hours, how many hours more do cats sleep?)

The toughest questions sometimes challenge even adults, and listening to my children work out the questions teaches me something about they way they think and learn. Knowing that one child will answer the question "If you walk two dogs with four legs each, how many legs are you walking?" with "Six!" every time tells me that there is something we need to work on over the summer - and it isn't math skills, it's listening.

Wonderopolis (from the National Center for Family Literacy) sends a daily e-mail, too, this time with the answer to an "I wonder" question. Do birds really get angry? Where is the hottest place on Earth? It's not a quiz, but a chance to add something fresh to any slow moment.

I've also found Common Sense Media's Camp Virtual guide. Another free resource from a nonprofit, the guide is dedicated to choosing apps, games and Web sites that "let kids have fun while keeping up their existing skills and building new ones." My children were disappointed to learn that our "screens are for weekends" policy will continue over the summer, but when the screens are on, I'll let them try new choices from the camp-themed selections like "Scavenger Hunt" and "Talent Show." (Years ago, I reviewed children's television for Common Sense Media, and I know for a fact that they're more selective than I am on my own.)

Do you do anything to prevent "summer slide" at your house, and why? What has worked, and what has felt like work? If you've got a resource or a plan for summer learning, please share - even if you just want to say it's cool to let things slide.


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