Toss everything you need into a bag for a summer day at the beach or pool: a towel; some sunblock; and a nice, thick book about American history.
Wait, what was that last one? Heavy-duty reading material might not make the top of a high school student’s list for a chill-out day under the sun, but it should. Research shows the importance of keeping the brain engaged during a long vacation – and of course, it might help with college admissions.
“There’s 30 years of research on the idea of summer learning loss, tracking it over time. It’s been consistently documented,” says David DeMatthews, an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department at the University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education.
“If they’re not reading or engaging with adults, students can lose anywhere from a month to three months worth of knowledge.”
Summer learning loss hits all students
Summer learning loss hits some students more than others. “The children who are seen as typically at high risk are from homes where poverty is an issue or English is the second language and children who have a learning disability,” says Ellen L. Nuffer, professor and education department chair at Keene State College in New Hampshire.
But the problem is not limited to those at high risk.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re 6 or 18. Summer learning loss is an issue,” says Nuffer. “People have summer learning loss when they have an extended vacation from school. It’s not an issue when children attend year-round schools without long breaks.”
What can be done about summer brain drain?
“The first thing the teachers can do is help build a relationship with the parent. It’s a triad: the teacher, the student and the parent,” says Shelley B. Harris, an associate professor of education at Texas A&M University, San Antonio. “At the end of the year, teachers can provide a cumulative report on the student’s strengths and weaknesses, so parents know exactly what their child needs to work on.”
One answer is an academically flavored high school summer program, whether it's language immersion or computer coding or dance camp – something that keeps the synapses firing but stimulates the brain and imagination in a way that's different from sitting in a classroom. Educators have other solutions as well.
“Make sure children have access to books and other reading materials,” says DeMatthews. “Give them age-appropriate material that matches their interests, because books are great, but if the student isn’t interested, it will have low impact. You want a book that will pique their interest in something they might want to study on their own.”
Libraries, museums, schools and community colleges are good first stops to find local summer programs that will keep young brains from idling, Harris says. It’s also possible, she says, for parents to provide opportunities for learning that are fun and that create meaningful memories.
“Make everyday activities into authentic learning activities,” she says. “If you go on vacation, have them keep a journal. If they’re doing yard work, have them measure growth of plants in the yard. If they’re cooking, they’re learning a lifelong skill but also focusing on math and sciences – heat, temperature, time.”
Don't forget college test prep!
In addition to daily reading, Harris says workbooks or study groups focused on college test prep should be part of a high school student’s summer plans.
And family game nights are a great way to combat the summer slide, says Courtney Koestler, a professor at Ohio University’s Patton College of Education. “Games have long been a way to integrate reading and mathematics in fun, teen-friendly ways," she says. She also recommends summer camps for high school students geared toward specific interests, including computer camps, foreign language camps and camps focused on the arts.
And, research also shows that physical fitness and good nutrition are important parts of a solid summer.
“One of the most important things is to keep them active,” Harris says. “Don’t let them sleep in, eat junk food and play video games all summer. They need to have a schedule, even for breakfast and lunch. During the school year, they’re in a routine. Students thrive on structure.”