How to beat ‘summer brain drain’ this school holiday

I’m sure you’ll hear this sentiment many times over – but it really is hard to believe how quickly this school year has flown by. Yet here are our students, at the beginning of the much-anticipated, much-deserved summer school holidays. The long days of fun and relaxation ahead are the perfect opportunity to keep the learning going and keep that dreaded ‘summer brain drain’ at bay. ‘Summer brain drain’ is the common decline in students’ reading age over the break that shows up in those initial weeks of the new school year. Here are a few ways to keep those brains engaged and reading skills topped up.

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Talk to your children

The beauty of our children’s ability to read well is that it is heavily reliant on something we all know how to do – chatting with them. Oral language provides us with information and knowledge that gives context to all that we read. So talk with them and read to them – the signs at the supermarket, the (many) Christmas pamphlets that come in the mail, the plaque on the World War II memorial you’re walking past, the Department of Conservation signs on the hike you’re on, the books borrowed from the library.

As you play with your children, ask them to describe what they’re making. “What are you making?” Next you can add new vocabulary.  “I see you’re building a tower. A tunnel. A tent.” Talk, talk, talk. I can’t emphasise it enough. Growing up, we always looked forward to sunny days. When one came along, Mum would take me and my two siblings out to our backyard where we’d lay on our backs together on a blanket and watch the clouds go by and chat. It remains one my favourite childhood memories from Invercargill.

Give them experiences

The other thing that provides context and understanding to reading is experience. Sure, digital screens these days have become rather sophisticated – 3D, virtual reality, augmented reality, to name a few. But it has nothing on real-life. How else is a child to learn what it feels like to taste the salty water of the sea? To feel it splash around their ankles with the sun on their faces, to have gritty sand between their toes, the dryness of their skin after the sea water has dried off? It doesn’t have to cost a cent to give these experiences to our kids.

Of course another great place to take them is the park. We’re lucky in New Zealand to never be too far from a park, no matter what city you live in. Pick up leaves, touch the different trees, hug them, sit under them, walk around them.

Introduce the idea that people in different countries experience things differently from the way we do in New Zealand. Pose questions like, “What do you think the children in this country celebrate?” and, “What do you think is important to the people of this country?” Customs and routines of a different culture make sense in light of that last question. They might be fascinated to learn that in Scandinavian countries, the biggest Christmas celebrations happen on Christmas Eve. Or that in some countries, Chinese New Year is celebrated more than Christmas. A little research online, or better still, they may have a classmate or neighbour from a different country that they can ask.

Let them be bored

I’ll never forget my Dad’s response to me as a kid if I ever said I was bored – he’d throw it right back to us, telling us to use our imaginations and figure it out! And so we did. My siblings and I would get our bikes out and ride around the yard or throw the basketball around. We made up our own games and also had a great time with classics like ‘Go Home Stay Home’.

I would go as far as to say that letting kids be bored is one of the most important things we can do for them. Don’t feel guilty about it – instead, talk with them about the options they have and help them choose something to do.

Try out having a ‘making space’. This can be inside or outside. Set up an old tablecloth with a range of bits and pieces they can create with – leaves, sticks, old newspapers, Sellotape, this year’s leftover Christmas wrapping. It doesn’t have to be fancy!

I have often heard modern childhoods compared to those of previous generations, such as mine, when kids used to roam freely, playing with their neighbours all day until the sun set. While it’s a different world now, it is actually possible to create those same opportunities for our kids to roam free and simply be. No matter what the era, there are ground rules and boundaries, like, “Don’t go past the shops and don’t go in the river.” So try going to the park and setting up a picnic base with drinks and biscuits – “As long as you can see one of the grown-ups from where you are, go and explore.”

Help them notice their world by asking questions

Here’s my favourite question to ask children – “What are you wondering?” If your child responds with, “Nothing,” tell them what you’re wondering. “I’m wondering what baby pigeons look like”, “I’m wondering why clouds are all different shapes.” Come back and ask them the question again in a couple of days – the answers I get in response always surprise me.

Some other simple but effective questions to ask? “What can you see?”, “What can you hear?”, “What can you touch?”, “What can you smell?”, “What can you feel?” Every little bit of information and experience your child takes in will enrich their ability to read with understanding and enjoyment.

I emailed the staff at our school asking for more fun things to do with children and they came back with some fabulous responses. Including one from a Year 6 student who simply said, “Get out and about!” One staff member, Ms Helen Prescott, was kind enough to share the Amazing Wynyard Quarter Race she made up for her family. If you’re in Auckland, why not give it a go? If you live somewhere else, we hope it sparks ideas for the kind of fun you and your kids can have together this summer.

The Amazing Wynyard Quarter Race

  1. Find a seashell and take a photo with you all in it.
  2. Take a bird’s eye view photograph of the playground.
  3. Collect a sample of something from the ocean.
  4. Take a photo of a living sea creature.
  5. Record playing a tune.
  6. From the ground take a photo of you all up on the tallest slide.
  7. Read one paragraph of a book and photograph the paragraph you have read.
  8. I can open and close. Photograph me.
  9. Find two parallel lines and take a photograph of them.
  10. Your final destination is the Wynyard crossing. Good luck.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.