Summer is a time for play and rest, family time and adventures. But there’s compelling research to show that kids forget a lot of what they learned during the school year if they don’t have opportunities to continue reading, using their mathematical thinking skills and exploring the world around them.
It’s also been well-documented that the gaps between kids from high and low socioeconomic statuses grow over the summer. Affluent kids often have access to enriching experiences like travel, summer camp and visits to museums. Summer may be one of the most unequal times of the year, and that makes it hard on teachers in the fall. But there are plenty of low-cost ways to keep kids learning through the summer without sitting them down to do worksheets or drilling them on a math app.
Valorie Salimpoor is a trained neuroscientist who consults for the educational gaming company Cignition and has insight into helping kids who struggle with fractions. She also has two young kids of her own. She has been using her knowledge of the learning brain and her fascination with brain development to infuse her kids’ play time with math that’s fun and that sticks. Based on what she has seen work with her own kids, she’s pulled out some basic principles of fun activities parents can do with kids of many ages after school, on weekends, and during the summer.
“We know from a lot of research that there is a summer loss, and it seems to be more significant for math than it is for reading,” Salimpoor said. She thinks that could be because many adults are math anxious themselves, so when they imagine math activities for their kids they think about counting activities or doing math facts, while they enjoy reading to their children. Those activities are boring and don’t leverage what scientists have discovered about “sticky” learning.
Salimpoor has found good results utilizing eight traits of the learning brain to her advantage.
1. Engage intrinsic motivation
Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force for learning. People are most often intrinsically motivated when they have control over what they’re learning and have a sense of competence while engaging in the learning. The activity isn’t too hard or too easy; it’s just the right amount of challenging to keep the mind engaged.
“If you do a task when you have intrinsic motivation it significantly increases your performance and what you learn,” Salimpoor said. Because the activity itself is highly engaging to the learner, he pays more attention and the brain records the information better. “Any time there is more dopamine flowing in your reward systems, you are much more likely to consolidate the information better,” Salimpoor said.
She has found the easiest way to recreate that sense of “flow” with her children is to infuse math into activities they already love. For examples, her son loves Legos, so in addition to letting him build whatever he wants, she sometimes encourages him to make blueprints of what he’s planning to build. She asks him to predict how many blocks he’ll need and to think about scale, perimeter and area. She’s essentially infusing spatial awareness into an activity he’s already excited to do.
“This only works for people who are big fans of Lego. That’s sort of the whole point of this,” Salimpoor said.
Another example might work for kids who are passionate about Minecraft. With just a few small tweaks like planning what to build ahead of time, playing Minecraft can be mathematical. And Salimpoor said practicing a little math every day is all it takes to keep skills sharp.
2. Engage emotional arousal
Emotion is an incredibly powerful part of learning that can easily get overlooked. “We can do a boring task over and over and not remember it, but you can experience an emotional moment once and remember it forever,” Salimpoor said. Emotion centers are tightly tied to memory centers, so when possible try to build emotion into summer activities.
It can be relatively simple to do. Even a project like building a kite together involves some climactic moments of heightened suspense that will be memorable. Making a stellar kite will require research, planning, measuring, sketches and probably some trial and error. The first time the child throws the kite in the air to see if it flies will be an emotional moment filled with suspense. And it’s more than likely the design will require more tinkering, and hence more math.
“The whole idea here is you’re thinking about it and revising your strategy,” Salimpoor said.
It could take all summer to build the perfect kite, but along the way will be several climactic moments, along with more learning, revising and planning. The math is embedded in a fun activity that has an emotional payoff.