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How to beat the summer slump
Advice on keeping brains active through the summer, from James Clements.

For children across the country, the summer holidays are a welcome opportunity to take a deep breath and relax after a busy school year. For parents of primary-aged children, the holidays are likely to be less relaxing. Keeping children occupied and happy for six long weeks can be a tricky business, especially trying to find the right balance between giving them plenty of time to switch off and trying to keep them active and occupied.

When children do return to school after the holidays, it’s common for teachers to talk about the ‘summer slump’. This is the phenomenon where, after six weeks away from school, children have forgotten some of the key things they spent the last year painstakingly learning. This means that rather than moving onto new and exciting areas of the curriculum, the start of term is spent helping children back to the level they were at before the holidays.

As parents, if we can keep our children’s learning ticking over then they’ll start back in September both refreshed and relaxed and ready to pick up their schoolwork just where they left off - a huge advantage. Here are some practical ways you can help your child to stay on top of their learning without turning the summer hols into an educational boot camp:

Reading

Ring-fence the time to read
The summer holidays are bound to be busy, but 10-15 minutes of reading with your child every day is one of the best ways you can help them with their learning. Aside from the educational benefits, regular story time can also be ten minutes of respite from hectic family life to curl up, read and talk together. By all means ask questions and discuss tricky vocabulary, but don’t be afraid to lose yourselves in a good story too. Helping your child to enjoy reading is an important goal in itself.

Take turns to read
Whatever age and level of reading fluency your child is at, they’ll benefit from both reading aloud to you and hearing you read aloud to them. Reading to an adult is the most important thing children in the early stages of learning to read can do to develop their word reading. Reading aloud to children is a great way of building their understanding, showing them what expressive reading sounds like and letting them enjoy a story. By both reading and listening, your child gets the best of both worlds, learning more than if they only read aloud to you or listened to you.

Think about the range of books
If children like a particular type of book and that’s all they want to read, fine. It won’t do them any harm and as they grow older, their tastes will change and they’ll move to a different series or type of book. But anything we can do to broaden children’s reading palette is a good thing. You could try ‘book bingo’, where over the course of the summer children are challenged to read six different types of book - a novel, a non-fiction book, some poetry, a picture book, an old favourite and something they wouldn’t normally pick up, for example. Ticking each one off with a stamp or sticker can be a very satisfying thing to do!

Writing

Write little and often
If we want to help keep children’s skills fresh, writing a short piece regularly is more useful than a solid day of writing grudgingly undertaken once in August. There are lots of types of writing that lend themselves to this, such as:

  • A story set in space where an adventurer has a strange planetary system to explore. Each planet could be a different chapter featuring a different adventure. By September, the chapters will have built into a book of which they can be really proud.
  • An A-to-Z. It could be based on anything your child is interested in - animals, space, dinosaurs, fairies, even their favourite TV programme. A page for each letter of the alphabet gives you 26 short pieces of writing spread over the summer that build into one big project.

Start with an existing story
For lots of children, thinking of an initial idea can be difficult. Starting with a familiar story can help. They could:

  • Produce their own version of a book they love - The Rhino Who Came to Tea or The Very Hungry Angler Fish, for example. Books with a distinctive format such as The Day the Crayons Quit or The Last Polar Bears are perfect for this.
  • Write the book of the film (or TV programme). If children have watched something they’ve really enjoyed, they could try and tell the same story in writing. Watching the story on screen can give them a useful frame to hang their own writing on.

Change the format
While some children naturally love writing, for others it can be a bit of a chore. Anything we can do to make it exciting and help children to want to write is going to make for a far more enjoyable summer break. A classic holiday writing activity like keeping a diary could be given a twist by:

  • Writing it on the computer and posting it online as a blog or emailing it to relatives.
  • Instead of a book, keeping a special holiday box full of pictures, tickets and anything children find, along with loose diary entries or scribbled down memories on napkins and torn-out pages of notebooks.
  • Choosing one event - a holiday, a trip to a fair, theme park or a stay with grandparents- and writing the story of it as a graphic novel or comic strip.

Maths

If we want children to develop a positive attitude to maths, the focus of any work at home needs to be on activities that are enjoyable as well as educational. The primary school curriculum places great emphasis on children being able to add, subtract, multiply and divide with confidence so this might be a good place to focus. To make this interesting, you could try:

  • Putting children in charge of planning and budgeting for something - a meal or picnic, a day trip out, even the family holiday if you’re going away. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to practise their maths skills in a real life context.
  • Undertaking a family learning challenge. Set the whole family the challenge of learning one new thing over the holidays. It might a particular times table, the number bonds to ten or one hundred, or learning to tell the time. Everyone in the family has something to learn and their job is to both learn their own and help everyone else out with their challenge. I apologise if this means you have to spend August memorising the 37 times table.
  • Using sporting events to talk about maths - there’ll be opportunities to think about time and measurements, and see some amazing sport.

While keeping children’s reading, writing and maths ticking over is important, don’t forget to leave plenty of time for playing games, running around outside, climbing trees, getting muddy, watching TV, and playing with their toys. After all, it’s called the summer holidays for a reason.

James Clements is an experienced teacher, school adviser and parent to two wild-haired children. James is a member of the Advisory Board for Oxford Owl for School, Oxford Primary’s online school improvement service. Follow James on Twitter @James_ShMore.

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