Do Parents Need to Worry About “Summer Slide” in Their Kids' Academics?

Tufts child-development expert Marina Umaschi Bers argues that summer vacation is an important time to learn valuable lessons not always taught in school
Three children drawing in books outdoors in summer. Children need time to play as well as learn in the summer, says a Tufts expert
“Play is crucial,” said child development professor Marina Umaschi Bers, “and summer is a wonderful time to be playing outside, and with others.” Photo: Shutterstock
June 27, 2019

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Are you worried that your elementary school-age child is going to lose sight of her sight words over the summer? That a season without math facts will leave her left behind when it’s time to start the next grade? This is the time of year when articles with titles like “Three Ways to Prevent Summer Slide,” or “Turn Brain Drain to Gain,” begin to appear, and already-overwhelmed parents wonder if they’re doing enough to keep their kids on track academically over summer vacation. 

In many cases, those concerns are overblown, said Marina Umaschi Bers, professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts. The summer is a time to play, to enjoy nature and connect with others. Indeed, the learning might continue, but parents shouldn’t feel they have to replicate classroom lessons at home.

In fact, summer is the perfect time for children to practice some of the very important skills that there sometimes isn’t room for in school. “If a child needs remedial work over the summer, the school will tell you,” Bers said. “If not, forget it: let a child be a child.” 

Tufts Now asked Bers how to mix summer enrichment and fun.  

Emphasize social learning: “If you’re talking about elementary-school age, kids need to learn how to play; how to interact and socialize and solve problems,” Bers said. “Play is crucial, and summer is a wonderful time to be playing outside, and with others.” Even as children are getting a break from flash cards and multiplication tables, they’ll be learning important lessons about cooperation and teamwork. “This is not the time to be pushing academic skills, unless the school has concerns,” Bers said.   

Don’t overdo screen time: A respite from academics doesn’t mean a nonstop round of video game playing or TV watching. Bers, who heads Tufts interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies Research Group, recommends following the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for digital media, which advise no more than one hour daily for children ages two to five, and “consistent limits”—“consistent” is a key word here—that do not interfere with sleep or physical activity for children six and older, just as you would during the school-year. Choose games and applications such as Scratch Jr., Scratch, or Minecraft, which engage children in coding and encourage creativity and socialization. 

Emphasize reading for pleasure: While structured lessons may be on break, reading should always continue. “Reading should be fun for you and your child. It shouldn’t be looked at as homework,” Bers said. “Parents should be getting a child to read for pleasure.” Summer books should be chosen to awaken or enhance a passion for reading, so don’t get hung up on reading levels—look for books that feed your child’s interests. Families can read a book together, taking turns reading out loud. For time-crunched working parents, reading together can fill evening time that might otherwise have been spent watching TV. 

Keep an eye on balance: Too much of anything—whether it’s video games or, yes, even books—is not good. “Children need a balanced diet for activities: being outside; interacting with others, having some time to be bored—because from boredom comes creativity,” Bers said. Spending unstructured time with other kids teaches about communication, resolving conflict, encountering risk, and using their imagination. 

Cultivate your child’s interests: Adapting activities to match your and your child’s interests is a good way to share quality time together. Say you collect shells at the beach—if either of you are scientifically minded, you might want to look up the names of the different shells on the internet. But an artistic pair might want to paint the shells. And some parents and children might just want to arrange and display the shells where everyone can see them. The point is not to link every activity to academics, but to make memories and build trust and communication. “It’s more important for your child to know they can sit with you and talk to you about anything,” Bers said.  

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu