August 1, 2016
Although we are past the halfway mark of summer, there are still five weeks left before school starts which is a significant amount of time for academic skills enrichment through playing in nature. When I first heard the term summer slide I did not have children. I did not see the downsides of not engaging in school matters for three months. Now that I am a parent of a grade-school-aged child, I am more aware of the impacts of forgetting reading and math skills, or at least becoming less adept with these skill sets.
The historic emphasis in summer slide reduction has been on reading but maintaining proficiency in both subjects is a high priority today. Studies reveal that students from “low-income households without access to books” experience the highest rates of summer slide. Interestingly, with access to books, students from low-income households students outperform students from high-income households (also with access to books) on reading tests. Another point of interest is that elementary summer slide or lack thereof influences high school graduation rates. Two takeaways are then access to books and access during the grade school years. So what does nature have to do with summer slide if (early) access to books is the key prevention factor? Learning and playing in natural settings and using natural objects in study and play have well documented positive effects. Here are four ways to utilize nature to prevent summer slide.
1: Do activities including reading in natural settings
Unquestionably it is easier and more enjoyable to read when one is relaxed. Research has shown that spending time in nature has a calming effect on our central nervous system. Research by Dr. Ming (Frances) Kuo and her colleagues at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign show that symptoms of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder are reduced in children who play or read in “green outdoor settings” versus paved outdoor and indoor settings. [Link: http://lhhl.illinois.edu/adhd.htm] In their classic book With People in Mind, Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan, and Robert Ryan summarized studies of the restorative effect of nature. Spending time in nature, doing nature activities, and looking out at natural settings improved concentration, physiological recovery, and academic performance. Last year, the New York Times wrote about recent research that demonstrates that walking in nature – your local park is a natural setting – is good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing.
2: Read nature or science themed books
Your child might enjoy natural history or math concepts, so providing or suggesting books that deal with these subjects would encourage reading. I am a picture book enthusiast; there is really not enough time to read all the great picture books that are published each year, but don’t limit your young reader to fiction. Although nature and science themed picture books tend to provide accurate information and realistic portrayals of their subjects, check out nonfiction titles too, or a creative mix of both such as the Magic School Bus series.
3: Pair reading with hands-on activities
To extend the knowledge gained from reading, young readers can complete complementary activities in outdoor settings.
• Nature Scavenger Hunt [The Bird Feed NYC]
• Outdoor Math Games [Creative Family Fun]
• Outdoor Measuring Activities [Mother Natured]
• Make a Sun Dial [Paging Supermom]
• Rock Stacking [Rain or Shine Mamma]
• Small World Exploration or what I call "Mini Sample Plots in the Urban Forest" [Rain or Shine Mamma]
These activities work well as stand-alone projects, too.
4: Go beyond books -- read magazines and other written media
Finally, although the emphasis seems to be on books, I don’t think this has to be taken literally. (Disclaimer: I am not an educator.) There are well-produced nature magazines that might interest your young reader. A title that immediately comes to mind is National Geographic Kids. Other sources of reading material include the printed instructions to the projects mentioned in the previous section, newsletters and pamphlets from local nature organizations.
Have you been playing in natural settings this summer? Have you used outdoor time to reinforce math or reading skills? Please share your ideas in the comments, and thanks for reading.