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7 Alternatives to summer vacation homework

Summer vacation is just beginning, but many parents and teachers are already concerned about the 'summer slide' - the loss of subject-specific knowledge that occurs while students are out of school. Although some content loss is inevitable, there's really no need to panic, and there's definitely no need to assign a mountain of review work either. Instead, here are some educational activities children can do while still enjoying their summer holidays. It really is possible to do both!

summer vacation student thinking about science

Why summer homework, anyway?

Without fail, a few parents always ask me how their child can get ahead for the upcoming school year. I can appreciate the sentiment. After all, they just want their kid to be prepared. Still, is doing a bunch of worksheets or reading the textbook really going to make a difference as that student moves into the next grade? Not likely. If anything, frustrating or tedious homework could backfire and reinforce the negative relationship many students already have with school. As such, I'm firmly in the camp that does not support things like review packets and assigned summer readings.

What to focus on instead

While students are bound to forget some of the material covered during the school year, they are much less likely to forget any skills they've picked up along the way. Focus on developing and maintaining these skills. Unlike subject knowledge, which is specific to a narrow range of disciplines, skills like writing, money management, and media literacy are applicable everywhere. Take advantage of student interests and give them the freedom to explore and experiment. With luck, they won't even realize they're learning!

Below is a short list of summer activities that encourage personal growth and skills development. These can be facilitated by parents and teachers to ensure that kids are making the most of their time off, but ideally, the students themselves would initiate many of these plans. Let's take a look!

1. Learn something new

summer skateboard white shoes

Summer is the perfect time to pursue a new hobby or pick up a new skill. Whether it's learning how to skateboard, sew your own shirt, or bake the perfect cake, the key is to make it challenging while still being attainable.

Make it happen: Have kids set a goal at the beginning of the summer and encourage them to stick with it. Make sure it's realistic (ie. not too expensive) and achievable within the time they have. Give them the space to fail, but celebrate the progress they make along the way, especially if they are unable to reach their goals. On the other hand, if it turns out to be easier than expected, have them kick it up a notch by adding a new challenge or secondary goal.

2. Read a book (or many)

Reading is one of the most fundamental skills a person can learn so it's a tragedy that many students don't bother to do it outside of class. Instead of forcing kids to read books they're not interested in, let them decide!

teenage girl sitting on red couch reading a book

Make it happen: Take a trip to the school or local library and have kids pick out something to read. It can be anything, as long as it encourages reading and not simply browsing or looking at pictures. Parents can be positive role models here by choosing something for themselves, but be sure that children see you reading in order to maximize the effect. If your kids already enjoy reading for pleasure, encourage them to explore a genre they aren't familiar with, including non-fiction. For very young children, consider reading a chapter book together before bed each night. Even older children may appreciate it if you read a book concurrently with them.

3. Keep a journal

It can be a challenge to get kids to write on a regular basis, but it's a crucial form of communication that shouldn't be ignored. Some teachers insist on having students write essays over the summer, but I prefer to have them reflect on their experiences instead. A journal is perfect for this.

open blank travel journal and pencil

Make it happen: Not all children will respond to this idea similarly. Some students may be able to reflect on their days with minimal input, while others will need a lot of encouragement. Try giving very specific prompts to get them started and keep them on task. For example, a child could write about one new thing they learn each day, or keep an ongoing account of the challenges and feelings they are dealing with. Themed journals can also be fun and allow students to combine their interests with meaningful writing (think travel journal, food journal, or sports journal). If the child is especially creative, they could even write a series of short stories as a form of journaling. Video journals are possible as well, taking advantage of a format most kids are intimately familiar with. There's no limit to what you can do!

It's worth noting that journaling can be a very personal exercise and that some kids might not want you to read what they've written. The important thing is that they are writing often, even if no one is checking their work.

4. Watch a documentary

Kids generally love movies, but they don't often go out of their way to watch informative documentaries. An age and topic-appropriate documentary or docuseries can be just the thing to motivate students to dig deeper. I wrote a whole blog article on math and science documentaries for students.

camera filming a documentary

Make it happen: Do a little research to find a documentary that you think your child will gain something from. It's best to watch potential films yourself first to assess the content, if possible. Keep in mind that sometimes the goal of a documentary is to shock or inform, rather than to simply entertain. Depending on where you live, you may be able to attend a film festival or independent theater showing. Cement the learning experience by discussing the film and its contents. The best documentaries encourage action, so don't miss an opportunity to follow up while your child is motivated!

5. Do an art project

Artistic students will love getting their hands dirty as they explore new styles and mediums. The flexibility here is almost limitless.

coloured paint project

Make it happen: Expose your child to a new form of art, perhaps by visiting a gallery or by watching video clips. If they show an interest, provide them with some basic materials and then get out of their way! If you want to avoid the mess, consider enrolling your child in summer art classes. Possible artforms to try include sculpting, woodworking, origami, painting, beadwork, macrame, and more! Digitally inclined students can explore music composition, 3D animation, video production, or comic creation, among others.

6. Join a sport or club

Teamwork, perseverance, communication, and planning are just some of the skills to be gained from participating in organized sports and leisure activities. These can range from well-structured events to casual meet-ups, but it helps to have regular, repeated exposure to the same group of people in order to build strong skills and relationships.

woman rock climbing indoor gym

Make it happen: Find a sport or activity that matches your budget. Cheap sports are usually ones that don't include a lot of gear, such as swimming and hiking. Team sports and activities like soccer, basketball, and dance may also be available for a reasonable price. Depending on your child's interests, solo sports such as cycling, rock climbing, and horseback riding may have greater appeal, but the costs will likely be higher. Be sure to attend your child's events and performances to show your support, but don't get TOO involved. Remember, it's their sport, not yours.

7. Start a "business"

Your kids probably aren't ready to quit school and devote their time to building a business empire, but that shouldn't stop them from gaining valuable money management and marketing skills over the summer.

summer student lemonade stand business

Make it happen: Start with something kids are passionate about, like pets, fashion, or food, and then encourage them to turn it into a business project. Ideas include making a website, creating informative Youtube videos, making products for sale in person or on marketplaces like Etsy, and many more! You can motivate kids to earn money toward a big purchase like a bicycle or video game console, or forget about the money and simply encourage them to do it for the experience. Alternatively, if your child has a particular cause they care about, consider donating any profits to a charity organization.

Let your kids lead the way!

The above ideas barely scratch the surface of what can be done over the summer months, but don't let that limit you. Unless kids are complaining of boredom, they probably have many ideas of their own they would like to pursue. Support them as much as you can, within reason, but let them guide their own learning experiences if possible. Self-directed learning can be incredibly meaningful and long-lasting if done purposefully.

That's all for now. Here's to a productive and enjoyable summer break! You (and your kids) have earned it!

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