School breaks: Keep your kids on track (and have fun!)

I have a son who just finished fourth grade. He often struggles in school and I am concerned about the long summer break. Please give us some ideas for fun, learning activities that we can do together to help him keep on track.

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Good for you, for including "fun" in your request. Because your child struggles in school, you will want to give him every indication that he is indeed "on break" over the summer. Children need and look forward to this rest, just as we adults need to take vacations without obligations. Does this mean that vacation time is not learning time? Not at all! It simply means that the learning should be relaxed and truly playful. You'll know you've accomplished the goal of providing appropriate activities, if your son isn't aware of how many skills he's gaining.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Play Chess. Studies have shown that playing chess (and possibly other games that require strategy) actually increases a child's reading ability. If you and your child have never played chess together, play the first few games by revealing your thinking (call them practice games). Talk out loud while you move the chess pieces. For instance, you might say, "I see that you just moved your bishop in line with my knight. I suspect you are going to capture this piece, so I will move it here and at the same time get closer to your king." You will help your child improve his awareness of strategy.
  • Play more games! The time you spend playing a card or board game with your child is pure gold. If you did nothing but play a game of Gin Rummy with your child each night (and let him keep score), you would probably reinforce more problem solving skills than a whole week's worth of workbook pages. Most card and board games are swimming in mathematical concepts; however, what your child gains by playing games with you goes far beyond mathematical skill. The games listed below are particularly useful in developing strategic and logical thinking. You can make homemade versions of many of these games with file folders or sheets of cardboard, paper, and buttons or coins to serve as markers. Also check your library for Kids' Games by Phil Wiswell, Games of the World by Frederick Grunfeld, or other books of children's games.
    • Backgammon
    • Battleship
    • Card games of any sort
    • Checkers
    • Cribbage
    • Go
    • Mancala
    • Othello
    • Parcheesi
    • Yote
  • Watch a movie with your child. Then suggest he read the same story in book form. The movie will provide him with knowledge of the setting, characters and plot, a tremendous boost for the struggling reader.
  • Suggest that your child create his own Mad Lib. Most fourth graders are familiar with the format of commercial Mad Libs, where they fill in blanks with nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs to create silly stories. Your son can write a paragraph, erase words to create blanks and record the part of speech below the blank. Then he can ask you or other family members to supply random words. You'll all get a giggle.
  • Read a page-turner aloud. You know the book. It's the one you can't put down. Reading aloud to your fourth grader has tremendous benefits. While you read aloud, you can talk about reading strategies (What do you do when you come to a word you don't know?), comprehension (What do you think will happen next?) and vocabulary (What does that word mean?). You will also have great fun sharing a story together.
  • Visit museums or historical sites together, or see a play. These kinds of experiences help create "hooks" in your child's mind -- places to hang new learning. For instance, if your child sees a painting by Pablo Picasso at a museum and then reads about this artist in a book at school, he is going to understand and remember much more. Any new experience will create important hooks.
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