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SCHOOL’S OUT ’86 : Keep Brains Busy While School’s Out, Teachers Urge

Summer vacation. For most kids, it means carefree, lazy days. No spelling tests or math drills. No homework. No pressure to think.

But while children look forward to three months of leisure, some teachers are preparing packets of work sheets, reading lists and activity ideas to send home with the hope that the young minds they’ve cultivated all year won’t vegetate over the summer.

“When they shut those brains off for three months, we see a big drop in skills in the fall,” said Bonnie Swann, who teaches children with learning disabilities at Kaiser Elementary School in Costa Mesa.

At the elementary level, teachers typically spend the first four to six weeks of the school year helping children recover basics they’ve forgotten over the summer, according to Peggy Clark, who taught second and third grade for 19 years before turning to private tutoring at her Newport Beach home.

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“It’s a long, long stretch. It’s a shame that all that time is lost,” Clark observed.

However, Swann and Clark don’t recommend that parents use academic drills to keep their children’s minds in shape over the summer.

“If children don’t feel they’ve had a vacation by the end of summer, they take it in September,” Swann cautioned. “Any academic training over the summer should happen in a subtle way.”

So teachers are eager to pass on ways to exercise basic skills “on the sly.” Whatever activities parents choose, the child’s response will depend largely on how much enthusiasm adults show, Clark said. “Kids will do anything if parents make a big enough fuss about how wonderful it is, and don’t criticize.”

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Swann was emphatic about where she feels such enthusiasm is most needed. “Keep children reading, reading, reading,” she said. “Read aloud, take them to the library, buy them books, help them write their own books.”

Reading won’t seem like work, she said, if kids are guided to books at their level. Children “could be devastated” if they try books over their heads and fail, Swann said. See if they can read the first page before taking a book home, and if they insist on something like “Treasure Island,” the parent should read the book aloud, Swann advised.

Parents also should discuss books with their children, using questions that call for answers more thoughtful than a simple “yes” or “no,” she said.

Wanda Boughter, who teaches second grade at Rose Drive Elementary School in Yorba Linda, said “just getting kids to the library would be a big help. I work with very young kids, and I feel their reading skills are very tender and need to be reinforced.”

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Elizabeth Martinez Smith, director of the Orange County Public Library, said the 25 branch libraries offer a variety of summer programs to give young children incentives to read. “We try to make summer a fun time for kids at the library,” she said. “During the school year, they come mostly to do homework. During the summer, we want them to come because they like us.”

The Orange County Reading Assn. does its part to encourage summer reading by producing calendars for elementary school children with a suggested activity for each day of July and August. The July calendar for second and third graders, for example, suggests, “Go to the library and look for these silly books to make you laugh: ‘Freckle Juice’ by Judy Blume, ‘Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead’ by William Pene DuBois, ‘Teach Us, Amelia Bedelia’ by Peggy Parish and ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day’ by Judith Viorst.”

(Lori Morgan, past president of the Orange County Reading Assn., said the calendars are sent to the association’s 1,000 members, most of whom are teachers. Parents can obtain free copies by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the Orange County Reading Assn., P.O. Box 3097, Orange 92665.)

Pen Pals, Diaries Help

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Teachers also recommend a variety of ways to reinforce reading with writing: making greeting cards and thank-you notes, keeping a diary, sending post cards while traveling, corresponding with relatives or a pen pal. Writing is important, Swann said, because “when you can write a word, you own it. It’s part of your vocabulary.”

Some books help motivate children to write. For example, there’s “Free Stuff for Kids,” a book of “over 250 free and up-to-a-dollar things kids can send for by mail.” Among the items are a 50-cent list of 35 names and addresses from the Universal Autograph Collectors Club. The next step: writing to the TV and movie stars on the list.

When kids get restless with reading and writing, it’s time to get moving, most authorities advise.

Peggy Clark sees family excursions as an ideal time to combine learning with fun. She suggested taking the kids to a ball game and teaching them how to keep score. They’ll be working with numbers and sharpening their organizational skills, and they may become interested enough in a team to start reading the sports pages.

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Children will be more observant on visits to museums, nature centers and other educational sites if they are encouraged to play the role of a photographer or journalist, Clark said. They can send reports of their adventures to relatives or put together a neighborhood newsletter. And bringing friends back to places they’ve visited gives children an opportunity to play the role of teacher.

Games Can Sharpen Skills

Clark said that parents can turn vacations into learning experiences by encouraging kids to help read maps and road signs and keep a daily journal or scrapbook. Children can be given their own film budget to manage, and their interest in the sites will be heightened if photographs are developed along the way, Clark said. She suggested passing the time during motel stops with board and card games that exercise math and reading skills. Also handy, Clark noted, are story cassettes, perhaps made by older children reading aloud for their younger siblings.

Whether at home or on the road, children also need quiet time for creativity, said Laura Katz, director of the Pegasus School in Fountain Valley for “bright, curious learners” in preschool through second grade.

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Katz said children should be encouraged to put on plays they create themselves, or talent shows. “Kids don’t do this sort of thing much anymore,” she said, blaming television for luring children away from creative activities. TV has taught kids to expect “instant gratification,” she added. “They want to see something accomplished right away. It would be nice to see them get back to enjoying the process as well as the product.”

Katz also suggested giving children--girls as well as boys--a chance to construct objects from blocks of wood, scraps of old fabric, and other odds and ends. This type of play, Katz said, reinforces “visual and spatial skills” needed for mathematical problem-solving.

“When you’re constructing something, you have to see in your head what’s going to happen at the end of the process in order to build it the right way,” she explained. “That has an impact later on the ability to manipulate numbers in your head.”

Although Katz said it’s important to balance quiet play with athletics such as swimming and gymnastics, she cautions parents against overscheduling their children in lessons and other structured activities.

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“Kids really need time to just stare into space and mess around without having organized activity. They need time to think and dream and play. You can’t be creative if you’re constantly on a schedule.”

Sometimes parents overlook the simplest ways to make learning fun. Bonnie Swann noted that there are many opportunities to teach children through everyday activities such as cooking and shopping. Swann, who has a 5-year-old son, said children’s cookbooks provide simple instructions and give kids exposure to numbers and fractions as well as words. And at the supermarket, she said, instructing youngsters to find several items on an aisle tests their memories while giving them the pleasure of a treasure hunt.

Building Self-Esteem’

And don’t miss an opportunity to let children handle money matters, she added. In a restaurant, let them pay the check and count the change. And, Swann suggested, encourage them to go into business for themselves with a lemonade or brownie stand, and let them take charge of the advance planning, shopping and baking, as well as the selling.

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“Summer is a good time for kids to take on all kinds of new responsibilities,” said Clark. And whenever they’re given a chance to make choices, it helps build their self-esteem, she added.

Summer, said Wanda Boughter, should be a time for children “to fill up that bank of experience they draw from in their academic life in later years.”

However, she stressed, whatever parents do to direct their children to enriching summer experiences, they shouldn’t forget that “childhood was made to be lived and enjoyed. Summer should be a time of pleasure.”


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