Caring For Our Kids

Avoiding summer brain damage: Activities to keep your kids thinking

Photo courtesy of the bay area discovery museum

When I think about summer, it’s about fun in the sun, taking a break from the school routine, and just enjoying a slower pace. I was surprised recently when I heard the term “brain drain” or “summer slide.” This is our first summer with a grade-school child, so this was a new concept. I started researching it and discovered a recent article by a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who found that when students return to school after a long summer vacation, they’ve lost one to three months worth of learning.

This was shocking — that’s a lot of lost learning. The good news is there are ways to avoid brain drain. Here are a few easy tips our family is going to try:

Summer reading. One of the best ways to keep your child’s brain active is to encourage reading. Whether you read to or with your child, setting aside time each day with a book is very important. It doesn’t have to be for long periods of time; even 30 minutes a day will help keep those reading skills fresh. For school-age children, consider taking this one step further and have them write short book reports. You may get a little push-back at first, but this really helps develop reading comprehension, and they may even start to like it.

The San Francisco Public Library ( has a great summer reading program that encourages readers of all ages to pick up a book this summer. It’s easy to sign up online or at your local branch. Each reader keeps track of the time spent reading in an online log, and there are prizes for those who have read 10 hours or more.

I signed up my children, and I also signed up myself. I am a firm believer that parents should practice what we preach, and what better way than for our children to see us enjoying a good book (and I’m not talking about 50 Shades).

Family field trips. There are so many fun places to visit in the summer that also incorporate education and learning. Local museums are always great places to visit, and we don’t have to go far to find first-rate ones, such as the Bay Area Discovery Museum, the Exploratorium, or the Academy of Sciences. Visit the museum websites for free days and their events calendar for special programs for children and families.

Hiking on local trails is another great family outing. Frog Mom ( has a wonderful book filled with Bay Area hikes for kids of all ages. It’s easy to search hikes by area, trail length and trail difficulty.

Beach trips are also an excellent opportunity to keep children active over the summer. Whether it is a nice day at Chrissy Field or a drive to Santa Cruz, nothing gets the imagination going like constructing a sand masterpiece. These outings not only get children off the couch, but they can also be a great opportunity to discover and learn about new plant and animal life.

Limit screen time. It can be easy to fall into the summer trap of plopping the kids in front of the television, computer or iPad to give yourself a break. However, encouraging them to get outside or get moving is important not only for their brain but also their physical health. That said, it would be unrealistic to think that kids won’t spend any time in front of a screen this summer.

It’s important to limit their screen time but also to be selective about what they are watching or playing. As parents, we need to make informed decisions for our younger children and help our older ones make their own smart decisions. Instead of a video game, opt for a math app, or instead of a movie, a book on the iPad. Common Sense Media ( is a great resource for parents to find movies, books, apps, and video games that are age appropriate and educational. Being informed before your child starts begging to download something will save you time, money and maybe even a few meltdowns.

It is amazing what creative and imaginative ideas our children can come up with if just given the time and an opportunity. They may find they are working on math and reading skills and not even know it. Just a few minutes a day keeping our children’s brains active can go a long way. You might even find it makes the beginning of the school year a lot less stressful for everyone!

Liz Farrell is the mother of two young children. She was formerly a television producer in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. E-mail: [email protected]
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