Summer Fun & Learning Guide

Prevent boredom – and brain drain – for your kids this summer with engagement, activities, camps, jobs and more ideas.

As any parent of school-age kids knows, summer vacation can be more of a hassle than a much-needed break at the end of the year. Keeping kids’ minds actively engaged over the long, hot months can be very challenging. Educators have long warned about “brain drain” or “summer slide” – the loss of newly acquired knowledge that happens over the summer when kids are outside an academic environment for three months or more. For minority and poor children, this slide can be very serious. Lisa Senac, director of education and life skills at the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, says that by fifth grade kids can end up as much as two grades behind due to summer knowledge loss.

However, there are simple things any family can do to keep their kids’ minds working during the summer and stave off that slide. It’s not all workbooks and learning games on a mobile device, either – although those are both good choices!

Making outings educational – and fun

Parents can turn something as simple as a trip to the zoo into a learning opportunity. The secret lies in something kids do in school: KWL, which stands for Know, Want to know, Learn.

For example, Senac says, you can ask kids on the way to the zoo what they know about the animals they’ll see. You can get more detailed for older kids, asking about what part of the world the animals come from or what they eat. Then, help them puzzle out what they want to know. This can take lots of forms. They could figure out what souvenirs they can get with a $10 budget, or ask someone exactly how those tempting ice cream dots are made.

During the visit, make it a family project to find that info out. When the trip is over, ask them what they learned. “It should be specific and focused on things you will end up knowing before you leave, and maybe you learned something you didn’t think you were going to learn,” she says. “It’s a way of taking that time to create those opportunities to learn.”

Discussion and day camps

Just finding ways to generate discussion also helps children stay mentally active, Senac says. Engaging them in chats about community issues helps sharpen real-world critical thinking skills, which are extremely important to 21st century learning, Senac says.

Nicole Richard, executive director of the Metro Youth YMCA, says even the YMCA’s summer day camps are taking more of a learning approach. Counselors ask campers to make observations or write journals about field trips or camp activities. “We’re taking more of an intentional stance to incorporate 21st century learning objectives,” she says.

Day camps, academically focused or not, help keep kids physically active and participating in a positive activity instead of getting into trouble.

Unfortunately, for many parents, they are cost-prohibitive. That’s why Central Detroit Christian provides a day-camp experience to children in the city’s three poorest ZIP codes.

Staff at the nonprofit, which incorporates several local churches, noticed a lot of kids on the street with nothing to do in the summer months, so they created the day camp. There is no charge to parents, and kids get three meals a day, field trips and more. “We want to keep them out of trouble and keep their minds engaged,” says CDC children’s director Russell Howard. “There are not as many programs for kids to go to in the summer in our area.”

Howard’s program uses a simple and cost-effective service: the summer reading programs at the Detroit Public Library. Kids get rewarded for reading books, which keeps them interested in reading over the summer and helps improve literacy.

Cherie Bandrowski, who runs programs for Wellspring Detroit, also recommends the library to keep children challenged during the summer. She suggests parents drill kids on math facts as well, based on what she sees in the Kumon tutoring they provide year round.

“So many of the kids, when we test them, we find them counting off on their fingers with addition problems because they haven’t memorized basic facts,” she says.

Expanding older kids’ horizons

For older kids, outdoor programs can help build self-confidence. CDC sends teens to a weeklong outdoor camp where they try new activities and experience nature. Many have never been out of Detroit, Howard says, and so the chance to experience an up-north Michigan summer can help them see things in a new way.

At Wellspring, teens have a chance to join the summer kayaking program. They begin by getting familiar with the boat and how to use it safely at an indoor pool. Then they progress to taking kayaks into shallow water and eventually go on a camping and kayaking trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

At the Metro Youth YMCA, Richard runs two programs for youth 14-16 and 17-18. Younger teens participate in a summer enrichment program, while the older ones have six-week paid internships at local businesses. They earn a paycheck, and with that comes education about financial literacy, sessions with local entrepreneurs and cultural experiences like trying world cuisines at restaurants and visiting local museums.

No matter the age group, summer learning should be fun, reinforce existing skills, and let kids develop a sense of self-confidence both in the classroom and out in the wider world. As Bandrowski says of the kayaking program, “It’s so encouraging to see how much they enjoyed it and how good they felt about themselves.”

About Detroit’s teen employment program

Young people in Detroit are unemployed at twice the national average for their age group – and the national average is at its highest since World War II. For many of them, it’s simply a matter of finding someone to give them that first opportunity to work.

That’s what Grow Detroit’s Young Talent does. The program offers an opportunity for young people to be matched with jobs throughout the city. They work for six weeks at local businesses or nonprofits for 20 hours per week, and earn $7.25 to $10 per hour, depending on their age and the job they do. The city provides matching funds to employers who would like to host an employee for the six-week period, and they also get free access to Detroit city buses, so they can get back and forth to their jobs without bus fare eating into their paychecks.

“People don’t realize what a successful program this is,” says Kate Cherry, program director for City Connect Detroit, who administers the program along with Detroit Employment Solutions. “We’re the largest privately funded program in the country and have been a lot more successful than some other larger cities.”

The program started in 2009 with around 700 young people placed in jobs; this summer they are looking to place upwards of 5,000, Cherry says.

Both the summer employees and their employers get training as well as ongoing support; the young people are trained in financial literacy and work readiness, as well.

Data collected at the end of each summer session show that both young people and employers are benefitting from the program.

“Youth unemployment is a problem everywhere, and it is especially a problem here,” Cherry says. “But we’re making some progress.”

For more information, call 313-664-5575 or go to gdyt.org.

This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2017. 

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Summer Fun & Learning Guide
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