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Staying sharp: Five tips for keeping kids’ brains engaged over summer break

Learning doesn’t have to stop when the last school bell rings. As lazy days of summer loom, parents can encourage steps for keeping kids intellectually engaged to avoid that potential brain drain between June and September.

Before the 10-week school break starts, sit down with kids to ask what they’re most interested in learning about over the summer, urged Lisa White, Spokane Public School’s director of after-school and summer STEM camps. Circle up activities, journaling, reading and creativity around that passion.

A child’s desire might be to learn about “all things dinosaurs” or to design a new kind of skateboard.

“Then go to the library, or even online to Pinterest, and look up as many activities to generate more interest around the subject,” White said. “We have fabulous libraries in our community, and we have places like Spark Central that has a library and makerspace in Kendall Yards.”

Learning activities at city or county libraries are free. Several options at Spark Central, 1214 W. Summit Parkway, also are mostly free or low-cost.

Area educators also encourage getting children outdoors to play, explore and learn. Along with building time for reading books, parents and children also could plan trips to Mobius and other area museums, as well as attend any of several free outdoor summer concerts for extra music education.

Nancy Ledeboer, Spokane County Library executive director, said summer kids programs are specifically designed with activities to boost learning during this season. The library system has lined up magic shows, Lego clubs, wild creatures, science experiments, musical shows and puppets.

“Libraries are concerned about that summer slide,” Ledeboer said. “We know students who don’t continue to engage in activities that are intellectually stimulating will lose ground over the summer.”

“Of course, they can come and check out books, but we also have lots of programs that are free where they can work with snap circuits and Legos and do other activities that engage the mind. We also have reading buddies, and parents can sign up to have their child matched with a volunteer.”

Among its summer kids programs, Spokane Public Library scheduled “Your Amazing Brain” 2 p.m. June 22 at the South Hill Library with an expert talk, fun video and self-paced interactive stations.

Other options stretch from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene, including tuition-based programs offered through Gizmo-CDA, a Coeur d’Alene makerspace, with kids summer sessions ranging from “Build Your Own Pinball Machine” to “Underwater Vehicles.”

Many nonprofit and public organizations also offer summer programs for learning around STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In fact, parents can search at as a broad, first-stop look at STEM activities, as suggested by Camille Nielsen, principal for Spokane Valley Tech’s STEM Academy.

The website lists a wide range of STEM summer sessions for students, including at Mobius Children’s Museum, Spokane Valley Tech, Girl Scouts, and libraries. Nielsen said sessions involve students in problem-solving, creativity, and just general fun.

“They’re high-interest topics to students who are asked to solve problems,” Nielsen said. “Can you design a boat that can float? Can you design a projectile that can catapult a small object a certain distance? To physically build and model to complete a task is a great way to engage students.”

“The topics are so relevant and interesting that they want to dive in and learn more,” she said. “I’m looking at a Mobius one called ‘Slime, Putty, & Goo.’ What student doesn’t want to engage in slime, putty and goo in the summertime?”

“Because they’re so appealing to students, you’re going to gain those benefits of having them activate their brains and continue to learn in the summertime.”

Here are five ideas for keeping kids’ brains active over the summer:

Keep a journal

Call them engineering journals, inventor’s books, or simply the traditional writing journal or diary, but let kids pick out a bound journal with empty pages to fill creatively this summer.

“They can document, be creative, draw, cut out pictures,” White said. “Put them in a book, so when they come across great ideas, they can use it someday down the road.”

Some kids prefer more drawing than writing, she added, but if children are fascinated by a topic, like snakes, most are willing to spend a few minutes a day journaling about what they’ve discovered.

“The reason we do that is we have kiddos doing robotics,” White said. “Some have actually had patents at fourth and sixth grade, and they had all their notes, documents, what worked, what failed.”

Outdoor adventures

Lots of learning can happen on hikes, at parks, or near rivers and lakes. Nielsen encourages outdoor excursions for learning opportunities this summer.

One of her favorite spots is getting kids out to the Dishman Hills Conservancy, easily accessible from Spokane Valley. It has miles of hiking trails plus interpretive signs that explain plants and trees to spark family conversations.

“For me, it would be about getting kids outside and going on hikes, looking at flowers and plants,” Nielsen said. “There are plenty of markers along the way to let you know about plants and animals, so they’re learning about nature.”

“They spend all day during school hours sitting at desks, so let’s use the summer to get their muscles moving and their brains stimulated outside as well.”

Learning something new

Again, this can stem from a kid’s favorite topic or what is picked as a new area of interest. Sign up for a summer learning activity or STEM class around favorite topics.

Perhaps, gaining new skills can be found in a cooking class or a home-based science project documented over several weeks. (There are many websites that list science projects ideas; and are two of them.)

There are also more chances to do what busy school-year calendars don’t leave much time for: sidewalk chalk art, gardening, rock collections, bird watching and identification, learning to read a map, and geocaching.

Math and board games

Kids enjoy games on digital devices and computers, but those can keep brains active and learning too. Various websites have math problems and worksheets, such as Several apps for mobile devices offer math practice.

On an iPad, Numbers League is an app that places users in a superhero role that must use math to save the city. Kids can play alone or against one another to reach different levels.

Families also can get out board games to engage a child’s brain. Choose among a wide variety of games at home or from the store that also happen to factor in counting, strategy and other thinking skills.

Read, read, and read some more

Again, local libraries come through to help kids find favorite books or subjects of interest to stimulate hours of reading in a shady spot or out on the porch. Kids can get lost in adventures or get absorbed learning about a favorite subject.

Summer reading programs at libraries offer incentives. For example, Spokane County Library has an online option for kids to track their summer hours to earn badges. All 600-minute readers get a printable certificate.

Depending on the school a child attends, some kids will have required summer reading to do before school starts again. Families also can create a reading program, encourage a kids book club, and offer incentives at home. With more leisure time, consider books that are just slightly ahead of a child’s abilities for improved vocabulary and to discuss questions.