Summer can be the best and worst time of the year. There are hours of time to fill with activities, time to explore interests that don’t fit into the school day, and time to get bored—very, very bored. Instead of being a time to learn new and different subjects, too often kids lose ground in math and reading skills during the summer. This means that when school starts up again, teachers spend the first four to six weeks re-teaching material, which slows kids down in the long run.

Summer and the Achievement Gap

Filling those long summer days is sometimes easier said than done. “Many families struggle to find access to summer educational opportunities," says Ron Fairchild, Executive Director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University. This is more pertinent for kids from low-income homes—more than two-thirds of the achievement gap between high and low-income students can be traced back to how kids spend their summer vacation. "Kids who have high-quality summer experiences," says Fairchild, “perform better on standardized tests and go back to school more motivated and ready to learn."

Preparing for Summer

Given that kids will lose some math skills and maybe some reading skills over the summer, preparation makes all the difference. Fairchild recommends setting up a May or June conference with the next teacher your child will have (the fourth grade teacher if your child's in third grade) to discuss what skills she’ll be working on when she comes to school in the fall and what you can do to help your child maintain old skills and build new ones.

If your child is struggling in a subject, summer is a great time to make up ground. Ask your child’s current teacher how to approach summer practice and for suggestions of activities that will help your child learn outside of a workbook. Then, set aside time each day for studying, mix activities that your child likes with activities that she dreads.

Summer To-Do List

  • Grow a Garden: Summer is prime growing season. Have the kids plan a garden, budget the money to buy seeds, plant the seeds, and watch your garden grow (and gain some patience along the way). After harvest, decorate your house with flower bouquets or eat the bounty!
  • Tell a Story: Use postcards, old photos, magazine and newspaper clippings, and your own words and pictures to tell the story of your family, your town, your city, or make up an imaginary story. Let your child's imagination run wild and giver her a chance to flex her creative muscles! When the work is finished, bind it and display it as your latest coffee table book. (High-tech tip: Try a photo-sharing website like Shutterfly or KodakGallery to help give your book a professional feel.)  
  • Take a Trip: Eventually, the kids (and you) are going to want to get out of the house and go somewhere different. Assign the kids a location— it can be as close as a day trip into the nearest big city or the closest beach, or as lengthy as a two-week road trip to some new and exciting places—and have them use book and Internet resources to map the trip, plan an itinerary, and plot out attractions along the way. This is a great way for older kids to practice their organization and time management skills.  
  • Get a Job: Give your child different jobs around the house and pay her for her work. Using her earnings, help her create a budget and savings plan. Then help her track her spending and savings over the course of the summer. This is an invaluable skill set that you can help develop in your child, and is especially important for older kids in high school as they prepare for work and college and learn to manage their finances.
  • Be a Summer Investor: Older kids can take the summer to learn how to invest, and make some money in the process. Give your teen some money (or let her use some of her own) to invest in companies or projects that interest her. Then follow the market throughout the summer at Check out more on savings and money management with your child here.
  • Go on a Museum Hunt: Heading to a museum? Make it more engaging and cut out complaining by hitting the gift shop first. Have each child choose a postcard that relates to the museum, then explore the museum and try to find what’s on your postcard.  
  • Don’t Forget to Read! Make sure you set aside time to read. Summer is a time when your child has tons of time to read for pleasure, so let her choose some books she's interested in. There may be books that she's been wanting to read, but didn't have the time for during the school year. If the weather is nice, pour a glass of lemonade and get lost in a good book alongside your kids. Libraries have summer reading programs that will help keep your child motivated from June to August, and stacks of new books that don’t cost a cent. Need inspiration? Check out our list for great summer reading books for every grade.
  • Get Out and Play: New research shows that kids are losing ground when it comes to health during the summer, says Fairchild, make sure that kids are eating healthy and spending time outside every day.

Want more summer activity ideas? You'll find tons of kids' activities that keep the learning and the fun going while school's out here.