Don’t let summer brain drain leave your kids behind

It happens every year: Just when your child finally gets into the swing of things at school, along comes summer, when trips to the swimming pool, picnics and baseball games tend to take the focus away from reading, writing and arithmetic.

Research proves that far too many children fall behind in academic skills over the summer, leaving them at a loss when it’s back-to-school time. But you can strengthen your child’s skills this summer with creative ideas that focus on the fun of learning.

Here are some ideas to get you started, but remember, no matter what you do, try to limit time spent in front of the television or computer screen. Before we know it, the lazy days of summer will usher in yet another busy school year.

Step out into nature

Teach your kids to appreciate nature-better yet, get out and appreciate the great outdoors together as a family. Some of the best learning experiences take place in the backyard. Encourage your kids to dig up worms, examine anthills, climb trees and soak up all the fresh air and sunshine they can this summer.

Area nature centers boast an amazing array of summer learning programs for the entire family. The North Park Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago, (312) 744-5472, offers everything from river hikes to cloud-making workshops. Fullersburg Wood Nature Education Center in Oak Brook holds hands-on workshops on subjects such as owls and animal tracking.

Life’s a Lab

Take part in one of the many science lab workshops, tours and more, sponsored by the outstanding Science Chicago: Life’s a Lab initiative. From guided birdwatching to archeological digging, you’re sure to find an event to spark the scientist in every child. Billed as the world’s largest science celebration, Science Chicago: Life’s a Lab strives to introduce families to the importance of science in our future.

More than 140 of the area’s leading academic, scientific, corporate and non-profit institutions have banded together to host thousands of programs that provide science-focused hands-on learning. Science Chicago aims to help establish the critical value of science and math education at a time when our competitive advantage is at risk, and to show kids that science isn’t just what’s learned in a classroom or lab-it happens all around us and has real impact on our daily lives. For more information and a schedule of events, visit

Encourage reading

Summer reading should be enjoyable, not an obligation. Make a date with your library a fixed, weekly event. Before you go, explore the online catalog with your child to discover books that fit their interests or ask the expert while you’re there: the children’s librarian. Reward children for every 10 books read with an ice cream cone or a trip to the bookstore to buy a new book.

Summer is also a great time to set up your home library. On July 23-29, the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, will host its annual book fair. You can find stacks of used children’s books (and a limitless supply of adult summer reads) for mere quarters. Alternatively, consider inviting friends over for a book exchange: ask everyone to bring 10 books to trade.

Study a world language

Summertime, when brains are relaxed and opened to new information learned in a fun environment, is the ideal time to learn about a world language.

Within its seven Chicago-area learning centers, Language Stars offers fun, full-immersion half- and full-day language camps in Chinese, Spanish, French, Italian and German this summer. “For young children, learning a second language is as natural as learning to walk,” says Deborah Bains, the Language Stars Lincoln Park Center director. “They have the ability to absorb the sounds, structures, intonation patterns and rules of a second language intuitively without rote memorization or grammar drills, so learning can take place in the context of fun and engaging play-based activities.”

Check if space is available in the Language Stars Summer Camp series, where kids are immersed in one of five languages while participating in exciting indoor and outdoor activities, such as water games, relay races, picnic parties, treasure hunts, storytelling, singing games and arts& crafts. New this summer are FunImmersion Studios, which offer two-hour blasts of Spanish and Mandarin fun. Flexible schedules and a la carte programs allow families to fit foreign language into any summer plan.

For a full-immersion family experience, head to the woods of Minnesota to take part in aConcordia Language Village Family Week. Experience the excitement and fun of an international adventure at a culturally authentic “Language Village,” a summer camp for the whole family that focuses on learning the language, music, games and sports of the culture of your choice. Choose from a wide variety of languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Spanish, Swedish and Russian. Not only will you brush up on your language skills, you’ll also enjoy authentic cuisine and fun outdoor and indoor activities in a beautiful wooded setting on a lake.

Study the arts

Consider signing your child up for a course in a neglected subject or one that isn’t offered at their school during the academic year. Sadly for too many schools, art and music programs have been the first to go out the door due to budget cuts.

Research suggests music study can have a positive impact on literacy skills, math and memory, and it’s almost always a learning experience that children look forward to and enjoy. Kindermusic offers summer and year-round music and movement programs for children age newborn to 7 at sites all around the Chicago area. TheChicago Center School of Music also hosts a wide variety of programs in piano, guitar, vocal training, bass, drum, violin, flute, saxophone, trombone and jazz.

But classical music study isn’t the only way to enrich life. Rock music gets brains pumping, too. Girls Rock! offers a rock summer camp Aug. 3-9 at Pritzker Elementary School, 2009 W. Schiller St., Chicago. The camp is open to all girls, age 8-16, regardless of musical experience. Each camper will learn an instrument, form a band, write an original song, perform at the Metro and record her song at a professional recording studio. To apply,

Tweens and teens, accompanied by a parent, can learn to dance to a different drum under the stars at the fantastic (and free!) Chicago Summer Dance Festival in Grant Park. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday summer evening, head over to the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park, 601 S. Michigan Ave., for a one-hour dance lesson by professional instructors, followed by two hours of live music and dancing on a 4,600-square-foot open-air dance floor.

For some quality art instruction, head over to the Art Institute’s Kraft Education Center to take part in the free Artist’s Studio program: On Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year and select Thursdays and Fridays through August, families can work together on a take-home art project related to special exhibitions and items in the museum’s collection. Every second Saturday of the month, take advantage of Target Free Family Day at theMuseum of Contemporary Art, where you’ll find activities for the entire family, including scavenger hunts, Look ‘n’ Learn stations, art workshops and, best of all, free admission.

Give your brain a workout with workbooks

Now is the time to hone in on skills your child is having trouble with. If summer school or private tutoring is not an option, check out one of the many workbook series available for all grades and subject areas, and take the time to sit and work together with your child.

Include your child in the planning process by asking: How many pages should we commit to working on together each day? What will the reward be when you’ve completed the entire workbook?

Sylvan Workbooks, available starting at about $9 each on, offers a complete series for each grade level, focusing on reading comprehension, vocabulary enhancement, spelling, language arts and more. For math skills, the Scholastic Success with Math series offers workbooks for grades 1-8. Early high schoolers might want to make use of the summer to start practicing for the ACT. Check out Cracking the ACT by Princeton Review.


What kid wouldn’t enjoy searching for buried treasure? Grab your GPS system and try your hand at geocaching, aka modern-day treasure hunting. Start your adventure at the official Geocachers of Northeastern Illinoiswebsite,where you’ll find the necessary coordinates to locate the hidden treasure (usually a box of trinkets, and the policy is to take one and leave one behind for the next treasure hunter). Just plug the coordinates into your GPS and go. Not only will you learn more about math and technology, you’ll also get a breath of fresh air and a walk in the woods.

GONIL is also a partner with the Science Chicago program: On July 18, a group from GONIL will teach people of all ages the ins and outs of geocaching. Reserve your spot at the Science Chicago Web sitewebsite.

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