Thursday, June 25, 2020

Learning through play ~*~ Summer engagement series, Part IV

Learning through play ~*~ Summer engagement series, Part IV
I'm so excited for today's post! While I've enjoyed writing the previous posts in this series, I hope this one will truly be fun for me, for you, and for your family!

Today, we are talking about learning through play!

Given how the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year ended, I firmly believe your kids (and you) deserve to have some time to decompress and just enjoy life instead of trying to force a new method of learning and a new teaching model. But, as I explained earlier in the week, many families and teachers worry about "summer brain drain" or the loss of academic gains due to the lengthy period of time between the end of one school year and the start of the next. You may be worried that your student will have gaps in their education or skills or that they aren't learning enough this summer -- I also noted in our previous posts that your children's teachers are preparing for this. They know that the school year did not end ideally for most families and that many students merely maintained rather than making academic gains. Teachers and schools are already thinking about how to address this as the next school year begins this fall.

So, today, let's get back to focusing on FUN and PLAY! 

And, your kids, I promise, are learning as they play. In fact, for younger children, play -- not academics -- is one of the most important things that can happen on any given day. This is supported by quite a bit of research, and if you read our series reviewing the book The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre, you'll already be familiar with the fact that pushing academics too soon or under overly stressful situations generally backfires. Even if gains are made in those situations, they even out later in a child's academic career.

So, again -- FUN and PLAY are your prescriptions for this summer!

First, there are a few loose rules to ensure that your kids actually learn through play -- I know, counter-intuitive right? It actually makes a lot of sense. 

In order to truly learn from play, children need to:

  • be free to engage in activities THEY choose, even if you aren't into it 
  • find their activity enjoyable
  • be allowed to be spontaneous, imaginative, and creative 
  • be directed by their own internal compass
  • risk and judgment free so they can express themselves without worry 

In other words, your kids need to be the drivers of their playtime activities and experiences. Your child may absolutely love an activity that you cannot stand. As the adult, it is your job to suck it up and let the kid indulge in the activity anyhow. They need you to be able to sit back and accept the silliest, wackiest, weirdest things they may come up with through creative play and imagination without criticism.

Now, of course, you need to make sure they are safe and not at risk of harm, but otherwise, leave the play session up to your kids. 

By freely playing and exploring their toys, found objects (cardboard boxes, empty toilet paper tubes, art supplies, rocks, etc.), your kids intuitively soak up lessons about how the world works. It is upon these intuitive understandings of the world around them that the foundation is built for more structured, formal lessons later in their academic careers. 

For many kids, true play is both a physical and mental activity. They move around and change positions. They use gross and fine motor skills. They examine and inquire. They form questions (all those "whys", am I right?). They touch, listen, look at, taste, smell the world around them. Even older kids do this, although older kids have typically developed better gross and fine motor control and better self-regulation so play for older kids generally looks and sounds significantly different than for younger kids. 

Be sure that your kids have access to plenty of games, toys, or supplies that are open ended and require your kids to formulate their own ways of interacting with the materials. For example, a large cardboard box affords hours and hours of creativity and play for most kids. So do blocks, Legos, paints or pens or crayons and paper, and so on. 

Be sure to check out the rest of our series on summer engagement:

  • Preview: Summer engagement -- how to keep your kids learning all summer (Read it HERE)
  • Part I: Is summer "brain drain" real and where do we go from here? (Read it HERE)
  • Part II: Keep those kids reading this summer (Read it HERE)
  • Part III: Bolstering math skills over summer (Read it HERE)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Bolstering math skills over summer -- Summer engagement series, Part III

Bolstering math skills over summer -- Summer engagement series, Part III
As discussed in our last few posts, now is not the time to really be digging in and getting your kids to some rigorous studying, revision, or academic style learning. And that includes math. As many schools shifted to online learning and virtual platforms, those schools, teachers, and administrators also largely realized that the shift was abrupt and most students weren't prepared -- several opted to move away from grades and to provide pass/fail grading instead which I fully applaud.

I'm hearing more and more from friends, acquaintances, strangers, and the media that most kids didn't really learn anything other than how to use new forms of technology.

So, it would be tempting to say, "Well, they didn't learn during the last few months so let's use summer to catch up!"

But, hold up there! 

Let's not....

As noted in the previous posts in this series, our kids (and we parents and teachers and administrators) need some down time. We ALL need to decompress from an incredibly difficult and stressful end to the school year. And, many also need time to grieve the loss of normalcy and seeing friends and going out and doing all the things we used to do -- we can do some of those things again, with precautions, but currently any sense of normalcy still has a cloud of impending doom just over the horizon. We aren't out of this yet and no one can truly say what things will look like a few months from now when school is back in session, not to mention all of the other facets of life.

So, how can we make sure your kids are still engaged and not just sitting on their butts and doing nothing? Yesterday, we addressed reading skills. Today, we'll talk about math.

Please understand that these suggestions and ideas are not meant for kids who have significant known deficits, delays, or other issues requiring formal or immediate interventions. For kids in those categories, yes, absolutely do some work to help them and support them as you look towards next school year.

Math skills can come in many forms, and instead of focusing on worksheets, online drills, and so on, let's brainstorm some other ways to look at and experience math:

First, buy an abacus! Not only can it be fun to simply play around with it, but you can point out to your kids that each line on the abacus has ten beads and there are ten rows equaling 100 beads total. Encourage them to play with it, count on it, shift the beads around to make different groupings of beads, and so on. If something comes up requiring your child to do some simple math, encourage them to use the abacus to figure it out instead of just telling them the answer. You don't really need to tell them how the abacus works, for the most part, and instead can challenge them to try to figure it out on their own once they know that it's a 10 beads by 10 rows frame. 

And, honestly, sometimes just mindlessly playing around with the beads without even paying attention to the mathematics part can be soothing. Leave the abacus on the coffee table and just see if what happens.

Cooking is a pretty obvious math oriented task. Encourage your kids to help in the kitchen and have them measure ingredients, read recipes, set timers, and so on. Cooking together covers multiple subjects ranging from math to nutrition to safety to home economics and so on. You could even task each person with being responsible for one meal per week and have them take care of everything from finding recipes (give them an old fashioned cookbook!) to writing a grocery list and checking the list against the cupboards to doing most of the work (teach them how to hold a knife, stir a soup, use the oven and stove, and so on). McKenzie is a Montessori teacher and one of the important aspects of Montessori education is practical skills such as these. If you don't have a cookbook, you can task your child with watching a YouTube video to learn a recipe -- my son and I watched a lot of Alton Brown and Gordon Ramsey videos (his actual how-to videos are not laced with expletives) to learn to cook together. Kids who are a bit further along with math can also be tasked with figuring out how to double a recipe for cookies or halve a recipe for smaller portion sizes.

Give the kids a copy of your grocery list and ask them to compare it to the grocery ads that come in the mail each week -- at my house, we receive two grocery store ads and two drug store ads. Have your kids compare prices between the stores to find the best deals. If you have a recipe in mind, you can even ask them to try to figure out how much it will cost to make the dish. Again, you don't need to provide a lot of instruction. This is more of a "figure it out" situation -- if your child says they can't do it or don't know how, ask them how they would go about learning how: "If you had to figure this out without me or without help, how do you think you might do it?"

Pull out board games. Many board games have math built into them, whether it is subtle in games that simply involve counting turns or numbers of cards or turns or more involved with card games that require counting, pattern recognition, and so on. Board games are also a great way to get kids off of technology. There are so many great games out there, and you probably already have some at home. 

Have your kids help you build or repair something or give them some basic tools and ask them to figure out how to make those tools part of their play for the day. For example, put a variety of measuring tools in a simple tool box and send the kids to the backyard or patio. Tell them to pretend they are carpenters and have to get ready for a job by measuring everything on the patio. You don't need to give them instruction on how to use the tools -- just let them goof around. They'll start to connect the numbers with measurement naturally and may come to you with questions. These natural connections are built upon later as play often precedes and lays the foundation for actual learning and skills acquisition. You can do the same with a box of dice, dominoes, and other toys, game pieces, or tools that have numbers, measurements, or patterns on them. 

If you are taking a trip, whether just down the street or across a long distance, have the kids figure out the distance you'll be traveling and how long it should take. Then have them keep track to see if they were correct. As you drive, you can point out mileage signs and ask the kids to figure out how much further. 

Frankly, though, don't worry about concrete math skills too much this summer. Teachers will be heading into the coming school year knowing that most kids didn't actually learn a lot in the last few months of this past school year and they are preparing for that. They aren't expecting your children to return to school full of knowledge, new skills, and great experiences. They are expecting kids to return who may be scared, nervous, or otherwise no further ahead academically than they were in February or March of this past school year. 

Give yourself and your family a break. It's ok to take time off from learning. In our next post, we'll focus on the power of learning through play (and we'll talk about how play involves math, reading, life skills, and more!).

Check out the rest of our Summer Engagement series: 

  • Preview: Summer engagement -- how to keep your kids learning all summer (Read it HERE)
  • Part I: Is summer "brain drain" real and where do we go from here? (Read it HERE)
  • Part II: Keep those kids reading this summer (Read it HERE)
  • Part IV: Learning through play (Read it HERE)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Keep those kids reading this summer -- Summer engagement series, Part II

Keep those kids reading this summer -- Summer engagement series, Part II
As we discussed yesterday, the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year were really rough for students, parents, and teachers alike. For many, it was also a dramatic and traumatic sudden shift that has left kids feeling nervous, fearful, and so on about school and the state of the world. 

At the end of a NORMAL school year, I would be offering you suggestions on the best workbooks, reading programs, math websites, and so on to keep the kids engaged over the course of summer. This year, however, I want to focus a lot less on active learning and lessons and more on passive learning with fun and relaxation.

Unless your child struggles with significant delays that need to be dealt with over the summer, I do think it's ok to skip workbooks and structured programs for pretty much every academic subject this time around.

But, the title of this post is all about keeping your kids reading this summer, right?


But throw away the book logs unless YOUR KIDS want to take part in reading programs offered at the library or bookshop or other places. Throw away formal reading instruction unless your child truly needs it to deal with known reading issues that need to be addressed. 

Instead, let's focus on making reading fun and relaxing. Further down in this post, I'll link you to several of our past posts related to reading, but first, I want to share some ideas to make it more fun and enjoyable for you and the kids:

Let your kids build a fort in the backyard, on the patio, or even inside. Give them flashlights or a battery powered lantern or a small lamp to take into the fort along with a big stack of books. Consider sitting down and selecting the books together or just plop a bunch of books in a basket or bin and stick them in the fort. Turn on some soft music in the background, add some pillows and blankets to the fort, and read together. 

Have a reading focused picnic. Lay out a blanket or beach towels in the backyard, put out some trays of snacks and drinks, and add a bunch of books. Have the whole family lay or sit down to read outside with a picnic. 

If you have pets, grab some books and have everyone take some time to read to the family dog or cat or bunny or lizard or turtle. Encourage using different or even silly voices for the characters in the book -- does the family dog prefer one voice over another? 

Take a few minutes to clean out the toys and other kid junk from your car and pop in some books instead. Change out the books regularly and ask your kids to read to you or to each other while you drive (don't force them though...if they don't feel like reading in the car, that's cool!). You don't even need to mention the books to the kids -- if the books stay in there, the kids will likely eventually start reading them on their own. Just make sure you change out the books periodically to keep the selection interesting.

Put books in the bathroom, especially if you are potty training. We kept a basket of books by the toilet and my son spent a lot of time reading in there during potty training and beyond! Even today, at 21, he still reads a lot on the toilet! As a toddler, he looked at picture books. In elementary school, he had some chapter books that we'd rotate through the bathroom, and as he got older, he progressed to novels and history books. Just as with the car, you don't even necessarily need to say anything. Eventually, your child will likely notice the books and just pick them up and read them without any prompting from you. Again, change out the books regularly.

If you go to Costco or Sam's Club, put your kids in the cart seat and swing by the books section first. Tell your kids that they only get to look at the book while you are in the store and then you'll be returning it to the books section before you check out (and, then surprise them by buying the book if you wish!). It took us a few times before my son was OK with leaving the book behind, but it also started being one of his favorite parts of our Costco trips! He read and stayed entertained while I got the shopping done. 

Take turns choosing a book to read aloud during dinner or over dessert -- my son and I used to read poetry aloud while eating dinner and/or dessert. This was a great tradition when we lived with my mom for a few years. We each took turns reading aloud and talking about the poems. It kept us together at the table longer and gave us something to bond over. 

And, this is not the time to do tons of correction -- if your child misses a word here and there, it's OK. It's actually very normal (it's when they are skipping numerous words on a regular basis that you should begin to worry). It's also normal to occasionally mispronounce a word, and again, unless it's really egregious or happening all the time, you don't need to intervene much (or at all). 

Carve out a space for a reading nook. Include books, pillows and blankets that stay in that corner just for reading, maybe a refillable water bottle to sip from while reading, and a soft lamp for ample light. I have a special spot in my living room that is just for reading and my son and I both have grown to love it. Consider making a special spot for your own reading, but include some kids books and special pillows and blankets for your kids in the same spot so they'll be inclined to join you. 

Let summer reading this year be simply about enjoying the act of reading, especially if you read together. Simply having books available and around the house is one of the most important things you can do to get your child reading. Don't just keep them on shelves. Put a stack on an ottoman or end table or even the floor near where your kids play. Put a few books in each bathroom. Put some books on the dining table. Exposure to books and seeing them out will go a long way towards getting your kids to pick them up and read them without being prompted. 

And, make sure your kids see YOU reading. This has long been known to be predictive of whether or not kids read. If they see their parents or important adults in their lives reading, they are far more likely to read as well. 

As promised, here are several of our past reading-focused posts for even more tips and encouragement:

All of our reading posts are HERE.

But, I particularly like these posts:

And, finally, while I'd love to say you should definitely promote and encourage reading this summer, I also think that this summer in particular should be a lot more focused on recovering from the traumatic and chaotic last few months of the 2019-2020 school year. This summer should include plenty of down time for you and your children with a lot less concern about learning.


Check out the rest of our Summer Engagement Series:
  • Preview: Summer engagement -- how to keep your kids learning all summer (Read it HERE)
  • Part I: Is summer "brain drain" real and where do we go from here? (Read it HERE)
  • Part III: Bolstering math skills over summer (read it HERE)
  • Part IV: Learning through play (read it HERE)

Is summer brain drain real and where do we go from here? -- Summer Engagement Series, Part I

Is summer brain drain real and where do we go from here? -- Summer Engagement Series, Part I
Phew! It's June, and you and your family made it through the end of what turned out to be a very chaotic school year!

We've been hearing from many parents -- from those at the school where McKenzie teaches, from parents online, from my private tutoring students' parents, and from our friends who have school aged children -- that the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year were....


Not great.

While some students managed OK, many others did not. 
While some parents managed OK, many others did not.
While some teachers managed OK, many others did not.

Rather than re-hashing how the year ended for so many, we are going to address where to go from here -- at least when it comes to the summer months, before the 2020-2021 school year starts. 

Normally we'd be talking about how to keep skills sharp over the course of summer, suggesting activities, workbooks, and so on -- and we'll do some of that in later posts, but not necessarily the way we would have before the pandemic.

But, we also need to talk about "summer brain drain" for a moment -- what is it, is it actually real, and should it be a concern this particular summer?

First, if you haven't heard the term before, "summer brain drain" refers to a backwards slide in academic gains. In general, it appears that students -- on average -- lose one month's worth of academic achievement over the course of summer. Students of lower socioeconomic status may be more prone to these losses for a variety of reasons, though. There seem to be variations in what type of learned material is forgotten over the course of summer and by what student populations, but it is clear that, YES, this is a real phenomenon. 

But, how much does it matter? Should you do anything to stop it? Should this summer be different?

Frankly, after years and years of private tutoring, academic coaching, and teaching, I'm inclined to say, eh, don't worry about it too much...

ESPECIALLY this summer.

Most teachers spend at least a little bit of time at the start of every school year doing some review and assessment to make up for summer academic losses. And, several sources are indicating that the vast majority of students didn't learn much of anything these past few months -- it wasn't so much online school or distance education as it was survival schooling. For many teachers and administrators, the last few months were less about teaching and learning and much more about just getting through the school year by any means possible in order to meet state and local minimum legal requirements for the school year (without meeting certain requirements, schools risk losing funding, accreditation, and so on, even during a pandemic).

Teachers, school administrators, and others in education are well aware that the last few months were an utter mess and that your kids likely didn't get much out of the experience other than a whole lot of stress. I think that will be taken into consideration by most schools in the fall (we'll talk about this later in this series).

Unless your child was already dealing with significant delays academically, I don't think you need to have a well planned or particularly rigorous summer academic program. I'm not saying don't do anything at all academically this summer, just that it may not need to be workbooks and academically obvious work. 

This summer, in particular, I think all of us -- kids, teachers, and parents alike -- really need a break and time to decompress so that we can face the coming school year with clearer minds rather than going from one super stressful situation to more stress over summer and then straight into a new school year -- a new school year that most of us can't even grasp yet in terms of structure, procedures, and so on. 

I would like you to take a page from the homeschooling world instead of worrying about what workbooks you should be buying or what activities you should be signing your kids up for. 

In the homeschooling world there is a process called "de-schooling" which applies to kids who were in regular schools and then pulled out to homeschool. They almost all need an adjustment period to unlearn regular school routines, to shed normal school stresses and worries, and to get into a new routine and new normal. In general, it is recommended that your child have one full month off of official academic/school activities for every full year of public/private school they experienced. I started homeschooling my son in fourth grade, so that would mean four months without a robust academic program. 

Now, don't freak out! I'm not saying you should take months and months off and that you should do NOTHING.

Instead, take a moment to breath and just enjoy being a family without Zoom classes, homework packets and assignments, virtual group projects, parents facilitating online school, and so on. JUST STOP for a week or two or three. If you want to take most of the summer totally off from anything that even looks academic, do it. Most of us didn't get much of a break between schools closing and everything going online and none of us really had a transition period to go from regular school to online -- it was simply from one to the other without any buffer in between. Most of us don't do well with that, do we? Even as adults, we struggle with such abruptness, so just imagine how hard it was for your kids.

We've ALL been under pretty much constant stress since early March -- for some even earlier, for a few a bit later. It's OK to take a break.

There are definitely ways to engage your kids in learning all summer WITHOUT being all academic and workbooky about it. 

Right now, I want you to just go and give your kids a hug, tell them you love them, and tell them that you are proud of them for making it through a totally nutty, upside down last few months. And, when you hug them, don't let go first -- let your kids dictate how long the hug should last (read more about my hugging philosophy HERE).

Tomorrow, I'll be sharing ideas on how to keep your kids reading without making it an academic exercise.

You can read more about summer brain drain HERE.

Read our previous post in this series:
PREVIEW: Summer engagement -- how to keep your kids learning all summer

And, come back for these upcoming posts:
Part II: Keep those kids reading this summer (read it HERE)
Part III: Bolstering math skills over summer (read it HERE)
Part IV: Learning through play (read it HERE)

Friday, June 19, 2020

PREVIEW: Summer engagement -- how to keep your kids learning all summer

PREVIEW: Summer engagement -- how to keep your kids learning all summer
As I write this, in the middle of June, we are still in the midst of a pandemic and no one knows what school will look like come fall and many parents may be wondering how to keep their kids engaged and learning this summer. 

In this four part series, I'll share the following topics:

Part I: Is summer "brain drain" real and where do we go from here? (Read it HERE)
Part II: Keep those kids reading this summer (Read it HERE)
Part III: Bolstering math skills over summer (Read it HERE)
Part IV: Learning through play (Read it HERE)

Part I will be live on Monday, June 22. See you then!

I'd love to know your concerns for your kids' educations -- what worries do you have about the way the 2019-2020 school year came to an end? What concerns do you have about the school year to come? Please drop a comment and let us know so we can help!