The brain is like any other muscle in the human body: use it, or lose it. As much as kids would like a break from school and homework over the summer, it’s important that they continue to exercise their brains. In fact, according to Bryan Taylor, Founder and President of, the average child loses about a month of academic gain over the summer. “Add that up over 12 years,” Taylor says, “and they’ve lost a year!”

And that’s just an average. Recent research through Johns Hopkins University indicates that 65 percent of the achievement gap between children from low-income families and children from middle-income families is due to unequal learning experiences over the summer months.

Summer camp can be expensive, but it’s not the only option for summer learning. Ron Fairchild, Executive Director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins, says, “Summer learning is an essential part of a child’s education, and there are so many free and low-cost ways to make summer learning fun and engaging for kids.” The Center for Summer Learning suggests the following tips for summer learning opportunities outside of summer camps: visit the library, take educational trips, practice math, and do good deeds.

Makes sense. And all of these can be free or very low-cost! The key is to make it fun—to convince your children that they’re just having a great time. Here are some ideas for spicing up these activities:

  • Visit the library. Summer can be a great opportunity to encourage your children to read about topics of interest. If your child is into skateboarding, for example, go on a mission to find books about famous skateboarders. And while you’re at the library, take the opportunity to talk about biographies as a genre. Share favorite biographies that you’ve read or people whose lives have influenced you.
  • Take educational trips. Many parks, nature centers, and museums can be free of charge. Take the kids on an adventure. A scavenger hunt is a great way to focus children’s attention and encourage participation in a collaborative activity. A scavenger hunt can work indoors in a museum or outdoors in a park, and kids of all ages can be involved. Older children can even help prepare for the hunt.
  • Practice math. Math skills are particularly important to practice over the summer. The great news is that there are a lot of fun and inexpensive activities that exercise the same part of the brain as basic math. Playing an instrument is a fun way for children to experience practicing pattern recognition. Other low-cost math activities include creating a map for your kids to find their way; involving your children in weekly grocery shopping, cooking, baking, and even in sorting laundry. Children can measure things around the house, track daily temperatures, add and subtract while at the store, or learn fractions while cooking. Many board games that you have around the house are not only fun for the whole family but also great tools for building math skills.
  • Play outside. Outdoor play is free, fun, and accomplishes two important goals: keeping children away from the television and getting them fresh air and sunshine. Don’t underestimate the inherent learning involved in outdoor play. Kids naturally investigate, explore, and develop their curiosity while playing in the backyard or at a park. Also, physical activity is a necessary component to good health.
  • Do good deeds. Activities such as community service don’t cost a thing and are important in helping children develop emotionally. Studies have shown that children who participate in community service activities are better learners and act out less than children who do not. Take your kids to the local food bank or homeless shelter. For community service opportunities in your area, contact the local DSHS office.