Exercising Your Mind This Summer

By Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman, MA

Ahh, summer – the birds chirp delightedly; the flowers bloom exuberently; the swimming pools beckon; children play gleefully; school is forgotten. But hopefully, not too many reading, writing, and math skills will be forgotten. How can we encourage children to keep up their academic skills without acting like evil parents or slave drivers? It can be done.

Most importantly, children should be reading all summer long, and what they read is less important than you might think. Research studies, as well as my many years of teaching experience, have shown that reading for pleasure is a major predictor of success in school. I believe that almost any child can be a reader if he or she finds a hook – a favorite author, genre, or series. For people like me, reading was no problem. I always had a book in my hand. My sister, however, preferred TV – until she discovered Judy Blume. Then she read only Judy Blume books, catching each one soon after publication. This was a great improvement from the tube and eventually encouraged her to read books by other authors.

While we all want our children to read “literature,” do not discourage your children from reading what you consider “trash,” especially in the summer. Light reading for me is a way to relax, as easy as watching TV. Ask any good reader what she reads for fun, and in addition to the rewarding but difficult books, you will hear: suspense/espionage, romance, law thrillers, science fiction, or mystery. I enjoy mystery novels and especially like to read a series by the same author. Then I get to meet the same characters, which is comforting, much like getting to know the characters in a situation comedy. Children love series books, too, such as “The Baby-sitters Club,” “The Boxcar Children,” or the Beverly Cleary Ramona books. Many teenagers enjoy books by Steven King, Tom Grisham or Michael Crighton. (Reluctant readers may feel more encouraged by shorter novels.) The key is to help your child find a page turner. Then if that works, encourage him to seek out other books by the same author. Buy books (or check them out of the library) one at a time. To a reluctant reader, a whole stack of books may be too intimidating. If you cannot convince your child to read any novel, try non-fiction books, magazines, and newspapers. Just build on his interests. A more subtle approach is to leave enticing magazines around the house or buy a gift certificate at a bookstore as a reward for good behavior.

If you still cannot convince your child to read for pleasure voluntarily, schedule a family reading time every day. For 20-30 minutes, everyone in the family sits around reading. If you want your child to read, you need to set a good example. Some families arrange for one night a week with no TV. Perhaps the children can choose which night, and they can videotape favorite TV programs. In addition, trips to the library and bookstore are key to make reading a part of your family’s life.

Hand in hand with reading is writing. Letter writing via e-mail or snail mail is fun because most letters generate responses. Children can write to long distance friends or relatives, authors of books they have enjoyed (through the publisher), ball players (through the teams), politicians, or celebrities. You do not necessarily need to check your child’s writing – just let her write.

A great way to maintain writing skills is to keep a notebook/diary to write down important events and feelings. (This can be private.) If your child excitedly tells you about something, suggest she write it down. Maybe a story will develop later.

Keyboarding skills are important to facilitate writing. Summer is a good time for a keyboarding class and home practice.

While on the computer, older students can create personal web sites, cataloging their interests. To generate ideas, they can view web sites of their friends or those found through a search.

The worldwide web can certainly be educational, but remember that anyone can publish on the web. Students should be careful to stick with professional sites, such as those offered by NASA or National Geographic. Authors and famous people have their own official web sites. Amazon.com has not only “official” book reviews, but reviews by the public. Children can publish their book reviews as well.

If your children enjoy the computer, they will enjoy enticing educational software. Disney’s site Family.com offers a list of the most enjoyable educational software of 1998 as well as reviews for 1999 software. “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?” teaches about history through a time machine. Disney’s Math Quest with Aladdin features Robin Williams as a genie. Reading Blaster Vocabulary teaches spelling and vocabulary through mystery games.

While computer activities are usually solitary, your family can participate in unlimited educational family activities, such as performing science experiments through kits or books, or building model trains or airplanes. Your family can travel to museums or to nature centers, such as the Hidden Valley Stream Nature Center or Huntley Meadows Park. Encourage your children to search out more information on whatever piques their interest during these trips. This “research” may lead them back to the internet or the library.

Your family can stay at home to watch TV news programs together. Through discussions, you can show your children that their informed opinions count. Other home activities can involve your family or friends: crafts projects such as creating jewelry or stained glass, growing vegetable and flower gardens, creating a home business such as dog walking, or interviewing relatives to create a genealogy chart. The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

Summer learning may not always be informal. If your child shows weaknesses in any academic subject, summer is the ideal time to consider tutoring. Tutoring, too, can teach academic skills and concepts by capitalizing on each student’s interests and can be an activity that children eagerly anticipate.

Children naturally are curious and have many interests. Your job is to encourage them to develop these interests via books, computer, field trips, and educational home activities. Show interest in their interests – remember, education is much more than going to school.

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