Summer Need Not Be an Academic Desert for Your Children

TIP expert says parents should use their children's innate interests and curiosity

A Duke expert suggests parents use their children's own interests as a guide in encouraging summer academic work. Graphic by Jon Fuller
A Duke expert suggests parents use their children's own interests as a guide in encouraging summer academic work. Graphic by Jon Fuller

Matt Makel, director of research for Duke’s Talent Identification Program, says it’s important for kids to exercise their brains during summer vacation, which for those on a traditional school calendar, can stretch to 10 weeks or more.

But he emphasizes this is best done by harnessing a child’s own interests. He explains further in this conversation with Duke Today.


Matt Makel Q: It’s now the dead of summer, and for kids on a traditional school schedule, there are still six or seven weeks of summer left. Should they be doing anything – gasp – that resembles school work to keep their brains active right now?

MAKEL: Kids can use their time away from school to focus on their interests and passions. If those interests align with academics, then summer can be their time to choose what they are learning. For example, pop culture can easily become a learning opportunity. Many of the characters from the new Wonder Woman movie are rooted in Greek mythology; it takes place during World War I, and Wonder Woman shows off her linguistic skills!

Kids can learn about Greek mythology (not to mention the sophisticated mythologies of comic book universes), the events of World War I, or start learning a new language all while just trying to be like Wonder Woman.

If sports are their thing, then some time spent researching the NBA salary cap could be a great math activity that also has a budget-setting component. There are also some really great biographies about athletes and teams for kids to read. Athletes like Serena Williams or Lebron James are known for being champions, but both have also suffered losses. Learning about how successful people navigate failure could be a great learning activity as well.


Q: Is it possible to lose any academic/intellectual ground in the summer if a child really doesn’t do any reading or analytical exercises?

MAKEL: There are two important facets to consider here. First, yes, there is research that shows that students can experience some summer setback where they forget some things over the summer that they learned the previous year. This is particularly true for topics like math and spelling where kids may not get many opportunities to practice over the summer.  Students may spend time reading over the summer, but they are not necessarily spending their time practicing their spelling!

Second, some students can also spend their summers learning new things. Thus, even students who are may not be forgetting things they’ve learned could still be “losing ground” compared to some of their peers. 


Q: And is lost academic momentum lost forever?

MAKEL: It is possible for students who are behind to catch up again in school.  But it would likely need a specific effort and awareness on the part of both the student and the school to make sure this happened. In earlier grades there is often substantial overlap in what gets taught (and then re-taught) one year to the next, but this shrinks as students get older.