Making the Summer Months Count

By Judy Molland

Four-year-old Danny Henderson will be spending this summer taking classes at a local study skills center to get him ready for kindergarten. Loretta Munoz is sending her seventh-grade daughter to an SAT preparation course. And 7-year-old Josefina Tafur will be taking a computer class, to make sure she can keep up with her peers. While these all seem like important learning activities, is it possible that we've let the pendulum swing too far in this direction?

Social and Emotional Skills

Out of SchoolFor Betty Hamburg, M.D., a visiting professor at The Weill Medical College of Cornell University, the answer is a definitive "Yes!" Hamburg is emphatic that we need to make it a national priority for our young children to be socially and emotionally ready to learn, since these skills set the stage for their success later in life.

Many experts echo this concern, pointing out that in the last few years there has been an over-emphasis on the cognitive aspects of healthy development.

"Of course, it's important to spend time on math skills, and learning to read," says Dr. Peter Jensen, director of the Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health, at Columbia University in New York City. "But not at the expense of learning to play well in a group, or learning how to get along with others and take directions from adults. More and more studies recently have shown that children can't learn if the social and emotional skills are not in place."

And without the pressure of grades, an overcrowded schedule, and hours of homework to complete, what better time than the summer to work on those skills?

Get Outside and Play!

The outdoors is a perfect place to work on those socialization skills, says Eric Strickland, Ph.D, the founder and president of Grounds for Play, a full-service playground company. "Children usually have more control outside," Strickland explains "Supervision is a bit less strict, since as adults we tend to relax the rules and let children find out what works for them in social situations. They can be loud, more active both physically and verbally, and they can be more expressive in the outdoor environment."

And with children more spread out when they're outside, adults tend to let them work through conflicts, unlike in a classroom where a disruption could quickly spread havoc through the entire group.

Unstructured Play

One way to facilitate this is for parents to establish a playgroup that meets on a regular basis during the summer. You might try organizing a group of parents and children to meet at the park, and then let the kids start up their own games. Once this group is established, with younger or older children, the youngsters will feel more secure as they try out their social skills on each other. And, of course, they will learn these skills more effectively when they make their own rules, and can effect the outcomes, which is not the case with organized sports.

Strickland believes that during the summer young people need to play in unstructured ways.

"By unstructured, I don't mean without any guidelines at all," he adds, "but why not get a collection of big cardboard boxes of all different sizes, and let kids figure out ways to attach them together and build a city outside. They can use hammer and nails, or invent a stacking process. You can let them paint the things, and they'll last for weeks."

He advises parents to go to building sites, where most foremen will let them take scrap lumber away. For older children, having them work together on some sort of appliance develops their skills of cooperation and group play. Maybe you can go to a repair shop, and pick up a lawnmower that is not repairable. Armed with some tools, the kids can take it apart. It's a great time for kids to get dirty and really do things that are different from usual!

How This Transfers to the Classroom

Once school starts up again, all those social skills - cooperation, taking turns and sharing - that your child has developed through the summer, can be applied inside the classroom. Perhaps he has learned how to resist, or to walk away, or to compromise, or to turn the tide on the person doing the intimidating. Children who learn to resist intimidation during outside play can use those same techniques in other situations.

Judsen Culbreth, editor in chief of Scholastic's Early Childhood Today and a board member for the Child Care Action Campaign, points out that girls tend to be more assertive outside, and they can learn to take that confidence back inside. A child who is initially reluctant to go down the tall slide feels a great deal of personal pride when she finally musters the courage to do so, and children who feel good about their physical abilities tend to view themselves more positively in general.

"And feeling healthy about yourself, and believing that you are a person of worth, is so important to building effective social relationships," Culbreth adds.

Don't Neglect Cognitive Skills

As you move through the summer, it is also important to make sure that your child keeps reading.

"Reading skills can definitely take a nose dive in the summer. You need to give your child opportunities to read, and actually schedule reading time for him, if necessary," Culbreth says. She suggests finding fun reading moments, like having your child read labels, brochures about where you are traveling, or the sports section of the newspaper. Reading aloud together is always enjoyable.

Summertime can also be a great time to start a journal. Keeping a journal inspires your child to practice writing, to think about and solve problems, and to be creative.

Through all this, avoid the tendency to overschedule. "Make sure your child has time to have fun and relax, just doing and being," Jensen says.

As parents, we can feel that we have to program our children, but something as simple as playing games together, or a trip to the park, works just fine. Enjoy the summer!

ListenWith the arrival of another school vacation, students relish the break from their academic routine. But parents may be worried that hard-earned gains in learning will be lost during the hiatus from the classroom. Judy offers some tips on how to keep the kids learning – in different and, yes, fun ways.
Listen to How to Keep Learning Alive During School Vacation


Judy Molland writes frequently on education for Dominion Parenting Media. She has taught for more than 25 years and is the author of Straight Talk About Schools Today (Free Spirit Publishing, 2007).