How to Keep Summertime Minds Ablaze

Amy Rees
May 11, 2018

So much of the joy of summer is the ease of it. Summer days are languid and long; even calling them lazy seems like a compliment, a sign of summertime success. But amid that openness glows a little flicker of possibility. Your preschooler's mind isn't dormant for the middle months of the year. It's open too, though moving at a different rhythm. Isn't there a way to keep learning aflame while still giving summer its due of unstructured downtime? (By the way, this applies to you parents too—taking a break from efficiency is sometimes the best way to stay sharp, as this great New York Times article explores.)

When we are out and about during the summer, here's how we stoke the fire of learning:

At the Zoo

Making the most of your family's membership at your local zoo (or aquarium) means coming early in the day or almost in the evening, just for an hour or so, to learn about a specific animal. Strike up a conversation with a zoo keeper (although the title conjures up the indelible image from Good Night Gorilla), and ask her which animals are most active at what times.  Ask her about the feeding schedule. Time your visits to see the good stuff -- and then cut it short if you need to. Linger in the nursery; spring's litters are just coming out for public view in the summertime, and the cooler enclosure makes it the perfect gathering spot for your own litter, too! Talk about the diapers and droppers and bottles that you see, and the differences (or marked similarities) from the newborn routine in your house not so long ago.

In the Sky

Sunrise and sunsets are fascinating in the summer—well, they are fascinating in the winter too, but the early and lasting dark has a more soul-crushing undertone to the fascination. So, the summer and those long, lazy days! Chart them. With any luck, your sleepy little ones won't be seeing sunrise or sunset during the longest days, but keep a running tally of how bright it is when they first wake up and when they tuck in for the night. Compare it to the actual sunrise and sunsets during the summer. Shine a desk lamp on a globe in a darkened room from the north pole and show how the light lasts in the Northern Hemisphere in the summertime. And watch for daytime moons. Keep note of those too -- kids are excellent spotters of the moon in the daytime sky (ah, their powers of observation), and they can keep track of its waxing and waning all by themselves on your family's sun and moon chart. 

At the Library

Anytime is storytime with a library card. Make it a regular summertime activity to stop by the library every two weeks and read a story of each family member's choosing aloud, and then check some out for home. There's a clear and painful learning opportunity in late fees too, but we'll hope to avoid those.

At (Someone's) Work

Find a place where things are made, and make a visit. What is a handmade specialty in your hometown? What is made or packaged nearby? No, you're not strutting into your local high-tech clean room, but find a tortilla factory, a bakery, a pasta shop. Find a big construction site and watch their work and track their progress. Stop by a firehouse and help them wash the engines during a quiet afternoon. Perhaps there is a tour you can take, or maybe it's just a matter of getting a glimpse and asking a question or two. Then go reenact what you saw at home -- make tortillas or bread or a cake or some ravioli. Build a skyscraper from Legos. Talk about what people do all day in your town.

On the List

As long as these summer days are, Gretchen Rubin reminds us that the years are short. These days are fleeting, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. While your little one is still little, what do you think you absolutely, positively must do together? Make the list. (Here's ours!) But make your own list, and start turning those ideas into cherished memories. Imagine how much you'll both learn!


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