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Sneaking School into Summer

Hey, parents: If you're looking to battle 'brain drain,' here are 10 ways to ensure your children keep their smarts while they're on vacation

School's out! That's great news for kids fed up with studying and homework, but it's bad news for parents concerned that their kids' brains will turn to mush between now and September. Fret not: Just because the textbooks are tucked away doesn't mean lessons have to end. Here are some fun ways to sneak in a little learning while having a great time with the kids this summer.

1. Cool science tricks

At The Surfing Scientist, Australian physics instructor (and surfer) Ruben Meerman shows kids how to amaze their friends by lifting a marble off a table by touching it only with a glass. Or make an ice cube necklace, turn an empty soft drink can into a twirling ballerina – and much more! (Younger kids will need assistance.)

2. Audio books for family car trips

Many public libraries have a selection of audio books on CD. One summer, my family listened to two wonderful books – Shiloh and Holes – during a family road trip. We talked about those stories for days. And it was great to share the experience as a family – versus watching our son play video games (and zone out) in the back seat.

3. Local museums and historical sites

Get a map and mark where these sites are located – then go exploring, suggests Deb Fuller, a freelance museum educator in Alexandria, Va. "Kids can help navigate," she says. "This teaches them map-reading skills, geography and spatial relations. Even young children can learn to follow along on a map and learn how to give simple directions."

Call in advance to see whether any special programs are going on that day. Tweens and teens may even want to volunteer, Fuller adds. "I don't know of a museum that doesn't need some extra help and that won't take willing volunteers," she says. "It's a great way for children to learn to give back to the community and learn responsibility."

4. Create folding paper toys

Kids can visit The Toymaker – specifically the free toys link, where they can download full-color paper toys to print on sturdy paper, cut out and assemble on their own. Make a bug box, a bunny basket, a jigsaw puzzle and more.

5. Visit a nature park

"These parks offer nature walks for all ages, from simple introductions to the park to bird watching and plant identification," says Fuller. Your family might experience Native American crafts, a guided fishing trip or live animal encounters. Some offer stroller walks for parents with toddlers, too.

"Many nature centers also have garden plots and garden clubs that your family can participate in," says Fuller. Check out the Spring/Summer edition of Going Places for a list of nature centers near you!

6. Fun with grocery-store math

Visit Printables4Kids to turn a trip to the grocery store into a fun learning experience. Before you head to the store, ask the kids to use the printable worksheet to estimate prices for items on your list. Once there, have your kids check out the actual price for each item.

Then get those math skills working as they calculate the difference between the estimated price and the real price. Plus, this is a great way to teach kids the importance of family budgeting. (With the price of groceries these days, you'd think Lucky Charms would come with a real pot of gold!)

7. Document the family vacation

Older kids can use a digital camera to record vacation memories; then, download the photos into the family computer. Show them how to make prints and create a scrapbook or let them create a multimedia presentation with computer software, showcasing the photos and adding music, titles, etc. Burn CDs to send to family and friends.

8. Free library and bookstore programs

"On Saturday mornings in the summer, I take my boys (ages 9 and 13) to one of the nearby libraries for their programs," says Sheila Minton of Redford, Michigan. Libraries and bookstores typically offer many programs, including author readings and book-related activities, for a variety of age groups. Looking for a program? Check out the library events in the Metro Parent calendar!

9. Take younger kids to the post office

Talk with your child about "snail mail" and how it's different from email. Tell her about the Pony Express and the different ways mail is delivered today – by plane, train, boat, etc., suggests Don Schilling, editor of The Stamp Collecting Round Up.

"Let your child pick out some stamps she thinks are interesting. When you get home, write a letter together and use one of the stamps your child selected," Schilling adds. You may even decide to start a stamp collection.

10. Hands-on history and re-enactments

Kids can try their hand at living like their ancestors by churning butter, making candles, learning how to spin and knit, using historical tools and meeting living-history interpreters who dress in period clothing, says Fuller.

"I've seen kids get sucked into history this way," she adds, noting that children have fun poking cloves into oranges to make pomanders or shaking little jars of cream to make butter. Compare the cost of a day at such an event – which runs, at most, $20 for a family of four – with the cost of amusement parks and even movies, says Fuller. You'll get a lot more educational (and fun!) bang for your buck.

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