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June 26, 2011

Educators: Young brains lacking summer exercise

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — It’s not technically a muscle, but the brain needs exercise, too.


For many children, though, summer relaxation goes too far, and educators fear they risk becoming mental, as well as physical, couch potatoes.


Summer learning loss, as the phenomenon is known, is well documented, going back to 1906.


“If you don’t do the kinds of things in the summer that reinforce the learning that took place during the year, you forget things,” said Judy Cheatham, vice president of literacy services for Reading Is Fundamental. “When you talk about the typical loss, the child loses about two months over the summer.”


Teachers often spend the first weeks of the year on review, costing time they could spend on new material.
The effects of summer learning loss are evident at all grade levels. But they’re concentrated among children who are likely to lag behind their peers to begin with — those from low-income families, and those who may not have many books at home or be able to afford enriching summer camps.


Local educational advocates say there are several free or low-cost programs in the area to help combat learning loss. Everyday tasks and family activities can also become ways for parents to keep their children mentally engaged.


In Augusta, 90 children are enrolled in the school system’s Title I reading program — a free, half-day program that runs five weeks. It is open to Title I-eligible students in kindergarten through grade 6, and includes transportation.


Last year, 90 percent of the students in that summer program remained at the same reading level or made gains, Curriculum Coordinator Tina Meserve said.


“We felt those statistics were really promising, and we’re expecting the same this year,” she said.


All elementary students can benefit from the district’s summer library: Hussey Elementary School’s library will be open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays starting next week, and Lincoln Elementary School’s will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays starting July 5.


Parents can bring their children to check out books, and there will be special activities at Hussey, including crafts, story time and book discussions, funded by a grant from the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation.


The Lithgow Public Library — or almost any public library — can also be a great resource. Lithgow has activities scheduled for 10 a.m. each Thursday, including a planetarium show, geography challenge and scavenger hunt.


Augusta Recreation Bureau is offering a variety of academic and athletic summer camps for children and teens.
They cost money, but children in the 21st Century Community Learning Center program can qualify for scholarships, said Barbara Helen Baker, coordinator of the program for the Boys and Girls Club of Augusta.


“Those are a lot of the kids who don’t have a lot to do in the summer, and that’s when they lose their edge,” Baker said.


Augusta schools don’t make a coordinated effort to direct families to summer learning resources, but many teachers offer tips individually, Meserve said. Meserve walked into a third-grade classroom the last week of school, for example, where the teacher was telling students to practice multiplication tables when they get a chance, to read books and to play math games online.


Reviewing skills with children doesn’t have to cost money or take much time, Cheatham said: It can be as simple as reading the cereal box in the morning and a picture book at night.


Children don’t have long attention spans, after all.


Augusta mother Darcee Betit said she requires her son, Camden, 7, to do 20 minutes of out-loud reading each night, and to keep a reading journal with her help.


Betit was on her weekly trip to the library Thursday with Camden, 3-year-old Eliot and Camden’s friend, Conor, 6.
They turned in a large shopping bag full of books and picked up another load.


The specter of learning loss will definitely be on Betit’s mind this summer as Camden prepares for second grade.
“I now have a child who’s school age,” she said. “When kids are on vacation or on a school break, it always takes time to get back in that mode.”


She plans lots of museum visits and tries to incorporate learning into non-academic settings. “Yesterday we went for a hike,” she said. “During the hike, we talked about things like, ‘What do you think made that tree fall down?’ or ‘Check out this yellow moss — let’s look it up online when we get home.’ ”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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