According to the National Summer Learning Association (summerlearning.org), “Summer learning loss, the phenomenon where young people lose academic skills over the summer, is one of the most significant causes of the achievement gap between lower and higher income youth and one of the strongest contributors to the high school dropout rate. For many young people, the summer “opportunity gap” contributes to gaps in achievement, employment and college and career success.”
Back in the day, as soon as we finished our chores on any given summer morning, we ran through the allies and neighbors' backyards, we climbed trees, built forts, played at the river, rode our bikes, played sports in the schoolyard, explored in the woods, and walked through the cemetery creating scary stories - summer meant playing outside. If it was hot we found water, if we were hungry we went home or to the nearest friend’s house for lunch or a snack. There wasn’t a lot of parental supervision, in fact most of the time they had no idea where we were, but we knew to be home for dinner and not one minute past when the street lights came on in the evening.
Sadly, things are very different today. But the outdoors is still there and it is still the perfect place to close the learning loss gap during the summer. It doesn’t take much – just go outside. There are parks, green belts, creeks and other small islands of nature within our cities and don’t forget that even small backyards offer unlimited opportunities for a child. (A spoon and a little patch of dirt will turn up rocks, bugs, worms, or even a tunnel to China.) Outside the city limits there are county open spaces, state and national parks, or perhaps you have a relative or friend who lives on some acreage and would welcome a visit.
You don’t need a curriculum or very much in the way of supplies to put a child’s curiosity and creativity into motion. Building a damn in a creek, through trial and error, will keep children busy most of a day as they learn the application of engineering and design principles. Watch as the concepts of buoyancy, density, and gravity go into action as they fabricate a boat made from a piece of bark and a leaf sail. Perhaps you could look up Archimedes' principle on your cell phone (I know you’ve got it.) and teach them the term for what they are learning.
While you have your phone out, look up the bug, bird, wildflower, spider, or butterfly they just saw. You’ll be surprised how many they can memorize in one summer. Make a list and suddenly you have incorporated math and writing skills into a day of outdoor play and exploration.
A quiet moment in an individually chosen spot will stir a child’s imagination. Take along a pad and pencil and watch their creativity take the shape of a picture, story or poem. Every adventure will be different and memorable and accidentally along the way they will learn to respect the delicacies and strengths of nature as well as the interrelationships that include themselves.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder says, “The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
So, this summer, take the kids outside, let nature take its course, and while you are enveloped in its beauty, enjoy the sights and sounds of the learning loss gap slamming shut.