It's that time of year again. School's out, and summer stretches before us. My parents would have said, go out and play. But we're living in an age when parents are more hands-on, for many reasons: anxiety about getting into college and earning a break on the sky-high cost; unpredictable economic storms, insecure jobs, stagnant wages that create a slippery slide down and out of the comfortable middle class.
As a result, families are more concerned that these weeks of summer include some learning. For people with time and money, summer promises specialty camps, out-of-town vacations, lessons and trips to museums and concerts.
But summer learning loss - the idea that students lose ground academically when they don't engage in educational activities during the break - is particularly acute for children in families with lesser means.
Sociologists at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated this by tracking 800 Baltimore students over two decades. They found that better-off kids retained more over summer break because they were involved in stimulating activities, even if they had very little to do with a textbook and a No. 2 pencil. In fact, by ninth grade, summer learning loss was responsible for two-thirds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their better-off peers.
In recognition of this finding, places from St. Louis to Teton County, Wyoming, have started affordable, educational summer programs for low-income families.
But even without communitywide cooperation, families with tight budgets and short together time can create stimulating summers. I asked parenting expert Denise Daniels for her ideas and checked out the suggestions on Educents.com, a website that curates fun learning projects and products.
1. Write a summer bucket list. Parents and kids should sit down at the start of the summer to list a few activities they want to make sure to include before the sunny days end.
2. Look to community organizations for free or low-cost resources. Libraries often organize summer reading contests. Some towns host free outdoor music concerts and other entertainment. YMCAs and JCCs run inexpensive day camps, and many camps will offer scholarships to families that can't afford the regular price.
3. Create your own "camp." Children can choose their five favorite recipes and make them on successive days for a week of cooking camp. Or they can re-enact a scene from a favorite book, making costumes and putting on a performance. Science camp, community service camp - the possibilities are as rich as one's imagination. Or, collect several families to host camp weeks on a rotating basis.
4. Scouts' motto: Be prepared. Have a travel kit to keep kids entertained when you're in transit, or if children need to spend a few hours at a parent's workplace. Keep art supplies in the home. Write out a list for a scavenger hunt. Have workbooks for the appropriate grade level tucked away for odd moments.
5. Mix in academics in fun ways. Get kids to read aloud to their pets. Have them cook or shop with an adult to practice math. Websites offer computer programming tutorials, and kids can subscribe to receive science kits regularly by mail.
6. Just be. In the final analysis, the most important contribution a parent can make to a good summer is 20 minutes of one-on-one time daily. Bedtime reading, especially stories that teach kids about emotions, can be ideal for fostering this connection.
Do you have something to add? Let me know. It doesn't have to feel like a classroom to count as a lesson.
First published on Newsday.com. Anne Michaud is the Interactive Opinion Editor for Newsday.