‘Keep their minds and bodies engaged in wonder’

“Keep their minds and bodies engaged in wonder during the summer months when they are not attending school.”

That’s what Julie Olson, director of elementary education for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools recommended last week. She was one of 39 education leaders who responded to my request for suggestions about what parents could do to encourage continued learning during the summer. They described a combination of community, school and family activities that can produce a summer with happy memories and student growth.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

Dr. Raymond Queener, Cambridge-Isanti superintendent, and many others agreed: “My advice is first to encourage students to read, read, read. Also, enjoy some activities at the Science Museum, maybe an art exhibit, spend some time outside in fun activities, and maybe get involved in a Community Education class of their interest. There are a lot of activities available, so make sure students stay involved, engaged, and try to find ways to encourage learning to continue.”

Steve Allen, of Cambridge, director of the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs, pointed out: “Summer programs often come in the form of applied learning opportunities that tend to really engage and/or motivate students. I’ve seen students really become encouraged about their learning after a summer of relevant and meaningful activities. Another reason that I encourage students to continue with summer extended time activities is that it continues to reinforce good study habits. Particularly with potentially at-risk students, it is beneficial to keep them in the routine of going to school. Finally, some of the best programs I’ve ever run have been summer credit make-up programs. Students may fail one or two classes along the way. If you can make those credits up during the summer, students don’t get overwhelmed and ‘give up hope.’ If a student gives up hope, we all lose.’”

Forest Lake Area Schools Superintendent Linda Madsen wrote: “There certainly are numerous camp opportunities for students that focus on many areas — music, sports, fine arts, etc. Of course, one way to promote learning is to promote literacy. Students can read, be read to or read to others. They also can sharpen their literacy skills by writing – keeping a journal, for example, of activities throughout the summer or of a special trip or event.”

Cam Hedlund, director of charter school Lakes International Language Academy in Forest Lake, agrees with Madsen. He responded: “For the little ones, read with them books at their level and read to them interesting books that are a little above their level to expand vocabulary and create a thirst of wanting to know what comes next in the story. Also, the car is a great place to practice mental math. There are a host of games that make practicing math facts fun and easy.

“For older children, read, read, read, and then read some more. Have them split their time between great fiction and interesting nonfiction. And then regularly engage them in conversation about what they are reading.”

Jackie Saunders, director of charter school North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake, recommended: “Parents should place limits on the time their children spend with electronics and social media and encourage them to engage in outdoor, loosely structured activities. Building brain connections is crucial to success in school. A good resource is Richard Louv’s ‘Last Child In the Woods.’”

North Branch Superintendent Deb Hinton explained: “The world around us is a laboratory. As families are out and about this summer, making the most of the summer months, use real situations as examples for concepts learned in class. Many students learn much better when they are able to relate what is taught to real life.”

Vern Koepp, Rush City superintendent, wrote: “Parents should encourage children to read. Find creative ways for kids to practice math, using shopping lists, your checkbook, weather information, etc. Discuss current events with children, asking for their opinions and solutions.”

Julia Espe, Princeton superintendent, agreed: “Limiting screen time is probably the best advice that I would give to families, meaning any handheld devices and television. Encourage them to go outside and play; give them opportunities to experience activities such as travel or museums or Minnesota adventures; and most of all, curl up under a tree to read books.”

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teacher union, wrote: “For students in elementary and middle school: Read! Students should read books all summer (not too easy, but not too hard). Give children daily opportunities to read (maps, newspapers, even recipes) and give children a chance to read aloud. For students in high school: Read! Also, find opportunities to grow life skills, like meeting deadlines and personal responsibility through part-time jobs, volunteering and service projects.”

Modeling from families is key. That along with helping youngsters set and work toward goals, plus encouraging reading, exploring and talking, are great ways to spend the summer.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]