Updated: Apr 12
Summer learning is very important. We take it seriously for two reasons: (1) there’s a worry that many families have that their children didn’t learn enough during the year and (2) summer learning loss truly can happen. There’s lots of research out there to prove the second one. Though the first one might be only a worry, it still keeps many people up at night! The answer: Summer activities for kids that make them feel excited about learning!
In this blog, we highlight how to create the perfect learning experience for kids in the summertime. We call this The 10 Ingredients for Summer Learning!
First, we identify all of the challenges that can prevent fun, summer learning from happening. Next, we present how to ensure you have exceptional summer activities for kids. This includes an inside look at the exact approach used in the Thoughtful Play Summer Series (for ages 4-7) and how it is designed to strike the perfect balance between learning and play.
Use the ideas included here to ignite your summer learning plans!
Challenges to Summer Learning
Resistance From Kids
Resistance from kiddos is real. The weather’s gorgeous. They want to play and be in the water, eat popsicles, go biking, and they don’t want to do “learning activities,” at least not the traditional, sit down and do the curriculum type stuff. This makes sense! So how do you balance summertime fun with making sure your child excels academically?
The minute they start to resist, it’s easy to throw up our hands and say, “Okay, fine, just go play.” The key is to prevent the resistance from happening in the first place. This is one of the ingredients to perfect summer learning activities. You want your child to be begging you for an activity! Don’t worry - we’ll show you exactly how to do this.
Fitting It In
Another challenge with summer learning activities is fitting them into your day. You might download something and print it out, and then never get to it. You invest time and money, but it never gets used because there’s not enough time in the day. We all feel this time crunch, but there is a solution without sacrificing the joyous, summertime play that your kiddos want. Knowing how to structure the activities is a key ingredient in delivering the perfect summer learning experience for your child.
What Skills To Cover in the Summer
This is such a dilemma! Should I start the first grade curriculum? Should we go back and re-do activities from our kindergarten curriculum? How do I know what skills to cover in the summer? How do I know my child REALLY mastered the kindergarten skills? Figuring out which skills to cover is important. The summer is short. It does not make sense to go back and review everything from the year, but there are some key skills that should be reviewed. Also, it’s important to know where to go next. Extensions into first-grade skills can be really exciting for kids and prevent them from feeling bored or unchallenged.
Finding the Best Books
Using books as a way to launch an activity or exploration is fabulous. So many kiddos get jazzed up by an interesting story that relates to the activity you’re about to do! The problem: you have to search for the best books on a particular topic and those books are not always on the shelves at home. After you find titles of some great books, you have to head to the library, maybe put them on hold, go pick them up, or order them from Amazon. You might need to search for them on Epic or YouTube. If you use YouTube for read alouds, you have to search through 10 different people reading the book and find the best one because - let’s face it - some of them are really terrible. This. Takes. So. Much. Time. It’s ideal if you have a list of books already prepared and it’s even better if you have access to the best version on YouTube.
Getting Materials Needed for the Activities
Activities that require a long list of materials or special items to pre-order, or that require a special trip to the store to pick up,….come on, this will never happen! Materials for kids' activities need to be things that are readily available or can easily be substituted with something else.
Printing Out Activities - Pain in the Butt
Here’s the key to summer learning - you don’t need to print anything! It’s much easier to carry out a summertime activity if you can just pull it up on your phone or a device, quickly look at it, and BAM, you’re ready to carry it out! The activities have to be easy to access in order to make it happen.
Mindset About What Learning Should Look Like
It is REALLY hard to get out of the mindset that learning takes place when we put our kids at the table and give them a workbook. For many of us, this was the approach used when we were growing up and, of course, this approach is still used in schools. However, it isn’t the right approach for summertime learning. Children need to be able to freely move their bodies as they engage with hands-on, up and moving-type activities. It should look, sound, and feel like play!
Telling & Asking
This is a tough one because there is a lot of “telling” that we do to make sure our kids have clear boundaries and expectations. But, when it comes to fun learning, kids thrive on questions. It’s a huge shift, to refrain from telling your child how to think about something or how to do something. That said, it’s key to making the learning activity engaging and exciting. Questions that inspire your child to be curious and wonder about the topic are essential.
Not Knowing What To Do Next
When children engage in a meaningful activity that ignites their curiosity, then they’ll likely have questions they want to pursue further. This can be hard, if you don’t know where to start looking for additional information or how to come up with other activities related to the topic. It’s super helpful to have ideas already prepared that can take the learning further when your child’s interests are sparked. Otherwise, the flame of excitement about learning more might flicker and go out. It’s important to be ready to fuel that flame!
Drawing on our 25 years of combined experience as teachers and running summer programs, here’s what we’ve learned about summer activities for kids that are fun and inspire learning:
The 10 Ingredients For The Perfect Summer Learning Experiences for Kids
Clear learning purpose in mind (that does not need to be communicated to kids)
Read aloud books to build excitement about a topic
A Hook - this is what gets your kid excited about the activity
Space for kids to make decisions and take it in their own direction
Opportunities for kids to move their bodies as they do the activity
Open-ended questions that tap into kid’s curiosity & excitement
Likelihood of feeling success with an activity
Additional activities on stand-by if your child’s interest is sparked
Activities that are easily accessible and require little to no prep
Short & Sweet (skill-based activities should be no more than 5-7 minutes)
1. Clear Purpose
Summer activities should have two components: (1) Review of the most important previously learned skills and (2) Opportunities for inquiry-based thinking, problem solving, and creativity.
If your child just completed a kindergarten curriculum, then the content skills in the summer should be a review of the most essential skills they’ve learned. Knowing which skills are the most foundational is key.
Here’s the general skills we recommend reviewing this summer:
Knowing Number Pairs (addition & subtraction) within 10
Adding & Subtracting within 20
Comparing & Ordering Numbers
Writing Numbers up to 100
Identifying Shapes (in everyday situations)
Money & Telling Time
Letter Names & Letter Sounds
Reading CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) & CVCe words
Practice with Sight Words
Short & Long Vowel Sounds
Letter Formation & Writing Words
In the Thoughtful Play Summer Series, we deliver a detailed list of the math and language arts skills covered. The review activities are all in the form of games, which are described later on in this blog.
Critical Thinking, Reasoning, & Problem-Solving
The second essential component to summer learning is inquiry, problem solving and creativity. It’s important to note that most curriculum for the school year prioritize content skills (e.g., math, language arts) over problem solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills. In reality, both are essential. Summer is the perfect time to put some focus on this second set of skills.
Prioritizing problem solving, critical thinking, and reasoning skills looks like open-ended activities with no right or wrong solution or answer. It begins with a question, invitation, or problem. Or, it can be a challenge to achieve or accomplish. This fosters excitement and inspires children to bring their own thinking, reasoning, creativity.
It is important to offer materials, but give children the option to incorporate additional items. Ultimately, they will come up with solutions that make sense to them. The best part is that kids usually have to lean on what they already know and bring that knowledge to the table to complete the task or activity; thereby reinforcing previously learned skills.
The Thoughtful Play Summer Series is specifically designed to prioritize both critical thinking/reasoning skills and a review of content skills. You’ll find activities that inspire inquiry and turn your child into a creative problem solver. You’ll also find math and language arts review games that cover content skills, like sight words and math facts. This way your child is fully prepared!
Having a Big Idea & Learning Focus
The Thoughtful Play Summer Series plans always begin with a Big Idea (see below). This is created specifically for you, the adult, to keep the learning focus clear as you begin the activity. Learning can quickly get muddled without some direction on the most important points you want to convey. The Big Idea is for you to keep in your mind the goals of the lesson. Some people love to share the Big Idea directly with their children. Others let the Big Idea unfold organically during the exploration. It’s up to you as the facilitator of the activity, but it’s there to serve as an anchor to the day.
The Big Idea is always tied to a specific Learning Focus that covers a content skill. The Learning Focus (see below) outlines the specific learning standard that is embedded in the activity. The activities themselves are engaging, fun, and active, but they are also always rooted in learning.
2. Exciting Books
Few things spark interest, questions, and curiosity about a new topic better than a good read aloud book. Within just a few pages, children can be exposed to and completely invested in something they knew nothing about a few hours earlier. High-quality books are a great way to engage your kids in the learning activity of the day.
There are tons of resources out there that highlight the best books to use for various topics. At Thoughtful Play, we often start with award-winning book lists to make sure we recommend highly-engaging books that are good stories and do a great job of presenting a new topic (see above for an example).
It takes a significant amount of time to research and find books that are home-runs with kids. Every Thoughtful Play Summer Series plan comes not only with a hand-selected read aloud book and discussion questions to encourage thinking, but also the best version on YouTube is available for you on our Thoughtful Play YouTube Summer Playlists.
3. A Hook (Building Excitement)
Every great teacher out there knows that a learning activity HAS TO HAVE A HOOK! Seriously! This is where you see children’s eyes open wide and a little smile forms on their faces. But what exactly is a hook? Well, it’s what makes children feel that something is interesting or worth their time without someone telling them that it is. With a good hook, most kiddos will be pumped, or at least intrigued enough to want to give it a try!
The truth is, it can be hard to come up with a great hook. Sometimes a really good book or short, quick informational video that leads into the lesson can be all you need. Other times it takes some thought, searching for ideas and inspiration of how to frame an activity in a way that hooks kids in. It has to be something that will fuel their excitement.
If you have a learning game planned, then it’s important to just share the title of the game, and not all the details about the purpose (e.g., Please do not say, “I have a math game to review our addition skills.”). The hook here would just be the title of the game, such as “Balloon Freeze” (see our language arts game at the end of the blog).
Below is an excerpt from our Summer Series Sample Plan. This comes from the July theme, At the Ocean, and the topic is SHARKS!!! Think: Jaws theme song. Not a bad idea to download and practice the theme song because this is the kind of thing that kids go crazy over - a sure way to build excitement!
Even simpler though, shout, “Hey guys, I have a super fun activity for us to do together.” Your kids come running, and you deliver the prompt we provide in the Hands-On Activity section: “Today, we’re going to see sharks!!!!” This sets the stage for excitement. Keep reading, “You are going to get to create a shark and its habitat!” You carry out the first few steps - in this case jumping to the read aloud or looking at pictures of sharks on the internet - and BAM - they’re engaged in a fun learning activity and you’re feeling great!
4. Space for kids to make decisions and take it in their own direction
Many parents make the mistake of thinking that a craft or experiment with a step-by-step procedure is the way to go. That this will bring excitement because it’s a craft or because it’s an experient. What we find is that with limited opportunities for a child’s creative expression or without a discovery-approach where they can figure things out for themselves, there will likely be resistance to participation either in the moment or in the future.
To ensure that you are providing activities that your child begs for, it’s important to think about how the activities are framed. Provide flexibility in the activities for your child to connect their interests and pursue their own explorations. They need to feel empowered to make decisions and to include their own ways of thinking.
The hands-on, inquiry-based explorations in the Thoughtful Play Summer Series are highly sought after by children. I kid you not. My 5-year old daughter everyday says, “Mom, what’s the theme today? What activity are we doing?” She is a super independent child that can literally entertain herself through play for hours without needing me to engage her. She rarely gets bored because her imagination runs wild and she starts acting things out, building, drawing, etc. And, yet, everyday she still asks me for the theme and fun activity that she knows I have planned. My 4-year old comes along too and enjoys the activities as well!
Guaranteed, your kindergartner will adore the Thoughtful Play Summer Series activities because (1) they’re designed to entice children, (2) they’re full of discovery, problem-solving, and creative expression and (3) there’s room to shift the activities to something your child is truly jazzed about!
Down below, you will find an ingredient for summer learning that involves keeping activities brief. This is not true for the hands-on, discovery activities. You can easily spend 15-45 minutes building reasoning and cultivating creativity through these activities. Again, if they offer space and opportunities for your child to take the learning in a direction that excites them.
5. Opportunities for kids to move their bodies as they do the activities
Kids learn by doing. They are by nature energetic, excitable, and always moving. A key ingredient to successful summer learning is to embrace this fact rather than fight against it. This means that activities should be hands-on, touchable, moveable, and even messy. Children should be encouraged to get up, move around, and run from one place to another as they solve, read, think, reason, and question.
Summer learning activities can be done inside or taken outside. The activities should move with you, so that a trip to the pool, to the woods, or to the backyard becomes an extension of the learning rather than a barrier to the activity.
In reality, it’s hard to always think like this on the fly. Especially when you’re managing sunscreen, water bottles, and loose parts. Activities to keep your child moving and thinking throughout the day are built into the Thoughtful Play Summer Series plans. This way, you don’t have to worry about the learning being an “extra” part of your day, but rather a natural flow within the day.
In addition, in every Thoughtful Play plan you’ll get a physical movement idea and a guided free play idea (see below). Both are ways to inspire additional learning, movement and promote independent play. If you feel like it, join them, or take a moment for yourself and feel reassured because they’re still learning.
6. Open-ended questions that tap into children's curiosity & excitement
The beauty of shifting focus to problem solving and critical thinking skills is encouraging children to question, wonder, and think for themselves. It provides them the space to bring all of their learning and understanding of the world together and begin making connections. With enough freedom, kids will begin thinking up fantastic inventions, creations, and solutions that will lead to their own sense of independence, interest, and self-worth.
Questions or prompts like, “What do you think? I wonder... What If...? What do you notice about…?” will make them feel valued, proud, smart, and empowered. And you’ll feel the same way about your kiddos!
The Thoughtful Play Summer Series includes inquiry questions and prompts in every plan (see Hands-On Activity earlier on in the blog) to support you in creating opportunities for critical thinking, reasoning, and creative problem-solving.
7. Ensure a likelihood of feeling success with an activity
Just like adults, kids LOVE to feel like experts at what they do. They soak up positive praise and get extra proud when they feel successful at a task or a skill. This is GREAT! This boost of confidence gives them the courage to take more risks and to demonstrate their learning by sharing it with others. Total Win!
Another key ingredient to summer learning is making sure activities are designed to help children feel successful. They should feel confident in tackling the problem or question in front of them. Do this by presenting it in a fun and exciting way. This might mean building it into an art project, a ball game, or a relay race. The activity should build upon learning that your child already knows and encourage them to take it just a bit further. It is a chance to review the learning they’ve done to make sure they hold on to it for next year and further builds their confidence in themselves.
In each of the Thoughtful Play Summer Series plans you’ll see easily accessible activities that are designed to welcome children into a project that they recognize and feel good at. It will also review skills that they’ve learned during the year to keep those skills fresh - such as reviewing CVC words or addition and subtraction. Once again, the secret sauce is to make the learning indistinguishable from the play itself. You know it’s there, but your child doesn’t need to. In the end they feel good about themselves because they accomplished something and had fun while doing it!
8. Be ready to take the topic further if your child’s interest is sparked
If your child is ready, then it’s also beneficial to do some simple extensions into first-grade content skills or to go even further with reasoning and problem solving skills or advancing creativity. This does not mean starting a first-grade curriculum is the way to go. Part of the learning process is time and space for children to experiment with what they’ve already learned, trying it out in new ways.
It’s ideal if you can build in extensions that connect to your child’s questions or interests within a topic. If it is something they are already excited about, then half of your work is done! Look for lessons, or design lessons that provide well connected extension activities. These are sure to win over your child because they don’t feel extraneous, like some learning thing you are trying to force on them, rather it feels organic, almost like they came up with the idea themselves!
The Thoughtful Play Summer Series offers quite a few academic extensions! First, there are science, social studies, art and/or music extensions! Your child might find these superbly interesting or not exactly what they had in mind. Every kiddo is different. These extensions are general enough that they can easily be adapted so that your child is bursting with excitement about learning more. Honor your child’s interests and the questions they might want to pursue further. Adapt these extensions to their interests!
Another key component of the Thoughtful Play Summer Series are the math and language arts extensions. These can really take kids to the next level. If you’re worried that you should've done more during the school year or that your child isn’t challenged enough from the learning in the school year, then these extensions will be key for you. Use them to reassure yourself that your child has exactly what they need to excel academically. These are perfect opportunities to advance learning.
9. Activities that are easily accessible and require little to no prep
Time is limited. Prepping for summer lessons is not something most parents have time for. Here’s one mistake: thinking you need to print stuff out. Truth: You don’t need to print anything. Here’s what’s not good in summer lesson plans: Needing specialized materials that require ordering items or heading to the store. Don’t do it. It might seem exciting to open up a box of all these cool gadgets and stuff that's going to make summer great, but the truth is more often than not the activity lasts 15 minutes and then the materials end up cluttering up the table, the pantry, and the closet and never get used again.
Also, if the summer plans require you to spend all day on Sunday prepping for the week, walk away. Just. Walk. Away. It might start out great and you might be pumped to plan out the activities, but eventually you are going to want that day for yourself.
If you decide you want to take the approach of searching for or developing activities on your own, make sure you include these criteria (because literally these can make or break whether you actually do the activities): (a) be able to access the activity without needing to print it, organize it, laminate it, or sort it, (b) minimal materials required and the ones you need can already be found in your home, and (c) minimal to no prep time, meaning you can look at the activity description and carry it out right then and there!
If you want all of this searching, prepping, and planning taken off your plate entirely, then Thoughtful Play Summer Series plans are perfect for you! They offer crystal clear directions that you can read on your phone while you are outside with your kids, sipping an ice cold beverage. Pull up the PDF. Read the “Materials” list. Quickly, gather the supplies, which are all things you have around your house or can be substituted. Bam! You are ready to go! There’s no printing necessary. No additional materials to shop for. No planning and prepping the night before. It’s really that simple!
10. Short & Sweet (Skill-based activities should be 5-7 minutes max)
Maybe the most important ingredients of all is this: keep the learning review brief! Activities need to be quick and simple when reviewing skills like reading and math. Aim for no more than 5-7 minutes so that you can easily fit them in, while also keeping your child engaged.
The Thoughtful Play Summer Series review sections are short and sweet (5-7 minutes). Children feel excited and joyful in an ideal relaxed state of learning! Once your child realizes that they’re “doing math or reading practice,” the activity is over! There’s no complaining or whining. There’s no pressuring or bribing. It’s perfect.
Plus, you can easily fit them into your day. And don’t worry about the engagement factor. We provide you with a prompt that ignites excitement for each activity. Just please remember not to say, “We’re about to do a math game to review our math skills.” For most kids that will not work, guaranteed. Instead, look at the first line in our activities. We tell you what to say so that your child feels like, “This is gonna be fun!”
If you decide to go with our Summer Series, we promise, your kids will be begging for one of the Thoughtful Play themed-activities (“Mom, what’s the theme of the day!?”) or a Thoughtful Play review game ("Please can we do that activity from yesterday again!?").
Even better, you will have peace of mind that your child is advancing academically and can hit the ground running with the next grade-level content in the fall.
Here are the Thoughtful Play Summer Series 2021 Themes:
In the Garden (May)
Under the Stars (June)
At the Ocean (July)
In the Woods (August)
Hollie & Katie
Hollie Young, Ph.D.
Katie Eichman, M.Ed.