Summer can be a young mind's enemy.
Not only are kids discouraged from tackling new concepts during lazy days of pool time and backyard play, but the long break from school, if not reinforced with summer learning, erodes knowledge gained from the previous school year.
The Boston-based Family Education Network says that summer can be a "brain drain." It points to a University of Missouri study suggesting that when kids return to school after summer vacation, they've lost one month to three months of learning. And the decline is more pronounced in math than other skills.
So how can parents keep the books open and knowledge fresh without hearing that the mere thought of summer learning is "borrrrrring" - especially in recessionary times?
Many parents appear to be taking advantage of free programs offered by libraries. Officials at the Baltimore County Public Library, for example, say that they've seen an increase in attendance in summer reading programs and events.
"Our programs are all packed," said Kathy Casserly, youth services specialist for the Baltimore County Public Library. "Because of the economy, people don't have the money to take their kids to some summer programs and they're taking advantage of our free programs."
In Howard County, the Smithson family visited the East Columbia Library recently so John, 7, and Maya, 8, could sign up for their first library cards.
"It's awesome," John said. "My mom doesn't have to use hers; I can get books on my own."
Lisa Smithson, assistant principal at Wilde Lake Middle School, is eager to take advantage of library offerings for her kids. "Last summer we used a lot of programs they have for the children, arts and crafts programs, story hour programs. So I was just online last night looking up the different programs at the three libraries to see what I wanted to get them into."
Her husband, John, said that when school ends, the family buys Summer Bridge Activities books that cover two grades. Their son is going into second grade next fall, so they purchase books for first and second grade.
"It's a review for what he finished in the first grade, and it covers what he will start in the second grade," John Smithson said. "Now it's so ingrained in them. They've been out of school for a week and they've been asking about the books since then."
Brenda McLaughlin, director for research and evaluation at the Johns Hopkins University's National Center for Summer Learning, said that family income levels play a part in how much schooling children retain over the summer, particularly with reading skills.
"Middle- and upper-income kids tend to either stagnate or make slight gains in skills, but lower income kids lose two to three months of reading skills," she said. "Access to books and activities has a lot to do with it. Middle and upper income kids tend to do a lot more activities to promote literacy skills."
McLaughlin said that the cumulative loss of learning skills over summers can be so significant that "by the end of the fifth grade, lower-income kids are about 2 1/2 years behind middle- and upper-income kids in reading."
McLaughlin said that kids of all backgrounds can take advantage of resources available for summer learning, particularly those at local libraries. She added that parents should not only take part in libraries' summer reading programs, but should discuss the books with their children.
"One of the simplest things is to first find out what your child's interests are at the moment," she said, "then make it a goal to find out more about that topic. You have to meet kids where they are."
The center's Web site suggests that parents start by making sure that time spent on leisure activities such as watching television, playing video games or surfing the Web doesn't increase. Parents should maintain restrictions on such activities just as they would during the school year, it says.
While summer programs and education-based summer camps are ideal to ensure that school knowledge is retained over the summer, much retention can be ensured by performing simple tasks in and around the house, according to the center. For those looking to keep math skills sharp, the center suggests that students measure items around the house and yard, add and subtract prices at the grocery store, cook (a good way to learn fractions) and track daily temperatures.
The Family Education Network says on its Web site that retaining math skills is so crucial to long-time learning that "if you can't decide whether to sign your child up for 'Shakespeare's Theater' or 'Math Magic' at the local community center, go with the math."
Most educators say that when summer rolls around kids should get outside as often as possible. The Hopkins center encourages low-cost day trips to museums, zoos and nature centers and vacations with educational themes.
Moreover, it says, parents should prepare their child for the coming school year by consulting with the child's teachers well before the new academic year begins.