Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

Battling Summer Brain Drain: Enrichment Not Acceleration

For the summer, which is better? More depth of content? Or breadth?

Summer is upon us and I find myself frequently fielding the single question that I am sure many of you are asking yourself right now: What can I do to help prevent the inevitable “brain drain” that occurs during the summer months? You know what I am talking about. Summer brings with it all kinds of wonderful freedoms—lazy days by the pool, chances to get back to your garden, and extended day light hours to tackle all those household projects you’ve put off. Still, at the same time, the sudden dearth of the intellectual stimulation that the school’s curriculum offered a month ago—coupled with the lack of a “regular” schedule—can sneak up on us. It’s not long until you look over and find your child sitting on the couch, Wii control or TV remote in hand. Again.

For many, the natural inclination of the parents of the gifted is to solve this problem by running out to the nearest teacher supply store and loading up on the next grade level’s workbooks for, say, math. They set aside time every day for a forced “summer school” schedule of sorts—and find themselves sooner or later (usually sooner rather than later) in a series of arguments about what the purpose of summer is. The child rebels, and the parent panics or feels guilty.

The core issue of contention here is not that the parent is offering something for the child to do. (Really, how many times have your kids already claimed they’re bored?) No, rather what is at play is the nature of the activity that the child is being asked to pursue. Demanding that the child work on next school year’s math concepts is a matter of curriculum acceleration—plain and simple advancement of the child’s knowledge of core subjects. For many gifted students this is, of course, an appropriate route to take—but not necessarily the most appropriate during the summer months at the direction of the parent. Here’s at least one reason why: you, the parent, do not know the curriculum as well as the teachers do.

Yes, you can go online and find the state’s learning objectives for any particular grade level. But as a professional educator, the teachers know what they’ll be doing with their students next school year far more intimately than you. They are familiar with the scope and sequence and the pacing guides. They know where students usually need more real-life application of the curriculum in order for it to make sense. They know best which resources to use to cover any of the myriad objectives they’ll have to impart. In short, they are the paid experts, the curriculum specialists. Let them do this work. Should you find that your child does need acceleration of the content next school year, it’s the teacher who will be in charge of that. It will be their understanding and familiarity of the objectives that you’ll rely on to see that your child is offered appropriate challenge.  Why make that issue more difficult (or even necessary) for everyone right off the bat in September by covering all of the fourth grade math skills in July and August?

There is an elegant solution here, one which will prevent that brain drain and make you feel you’re doing right by your child’s need for intellectual stimulation. Rather than offering your child acceleration, go for enrichment. Think about adding depth to what your child knows, rather than breadth. Your child has an interest in the planets. Last year, she learned the eight planets (sigh, I still pine for Pluto) and she knows all about meteorites, asteroids, nebulae and comets. Go deeper! Help her learn more about the potential of mining asteroids for minerals. Find out when the next comet will come zipping across our horizon—and why it’s so many years away.

Enrichment opportunities build just as many connections in the brain, and the ability for a student to see connections between content areas only grows as the new information gained is forced to be squared against what the child previously thought she knew. Known as constructivism in education parlance, we know that the brain naturally seeks to build knowledge; it does not simply acquire it. As new information is absorbed, the brain constantly evaluates how that new material forces a change in its previous conceptions. Sometimes new information helps the brain see a larger pattern or an application/connection to something else previously learned a completely different venue; sometimes, the new information forces a wholesale revision of knowledge, showing us that what we thought we understood was really a colossal misconception. Offering enrichment, not acceleration, is a legitimate way of furthering your child’s intellectual growth. With this in mind, here are some resources you can use to battle the summer boredom, brain-drain blues.

  • Museums. Most communities have a museum or two (or more). Those museums are on your side! They know that you are looking for ways to fill July and August. They also know your child may have visited during the school year on field trips. For these reasons, most museums understand they must offer something new during the summer if they are to remain viable. Many offer unique exhibits and often special summer camp classes that extend the exhibit’s content. Take advantage of this! If money is an issue, remember too that most museums offer a few free days throughout the summer for the community. Give them a call, find out what they offer, and go!
  • Libraries. This may seem obvious but I am surprised at how often parents forget about this local resource. Libraries often have access to the state’s artists-in-residence rosters. It’s a win-win for the special guests who may come into the community—their fee is supported by state funds and the local library branches get to offer something special to their consumers. But don’t forget to look beyond your immediate neighborhood branch! Many people don’t ever look to see what other library branches offer. Across town, for example, there’s a role-playing game club that meets every Thursday evening. A ten minute drive in the opposite direction is an anime enthusiast group that meets every Saturday morning. Keep in mind that library branches tend to offer what their local clientele want—and that may differ from what folks on your side of town prefer.
  • National organizations. National groups—like 4-H, the Sierra Club, US Department of Forestry, and Boy/Girl Scouts—know that the summer is a prime time for outreach. Many offer unique opportunities for you and your child. They may offer special summer camps or they may coordinate with the local parks and rec departments. They may offer ideas for summer enrichment on their websites. Find out what your child is interested in and use that to direct your search of national groups that support this.
  • Your local home school organizations. Many communities have home school groups that support each other. Make a call and ask what they do over the summer. Better yet, ask if you can join in! Do they take day trips to local attractions? What do they do there? They may know, for example, that even an amusement park such as Six Flags or Busch Gardens has a curriculum. (Learn physics through roller coasters!) Reach out, see what happens.
  • Your local parks and rec organization. It’s obvious, yes, and the usual go-to but it bears mention here of course. Keep in mind that, like museums, your community’s parks and rec department staff know they must compete with all the other summer opportunities. They know they must offer new and different programs from one summer to the next. They must stay competitive in terms of cost and content so don’t assume there’s nothing new there this summer just because you looked it over last summer. Get that catalogue and see what’s different. If you find something intriguing, consider these questions to help you take the next step:
    • What are the program’s philosophy and goals?
    • What does a typical day at the camp look like? Is it relevant/appropriate for your child's age and personality?
    • How much supervision is there and how are the counselors/instructors selected?
    • How are issues such as discipline and homesickness addressed?
    • Are the children divided into similar age or grade groups, (i.e., are 4th and 7th graders together in groups)?
    • Is there any financial assistance offered?
  • Local businesses. Is your child interested in how movies are made? Give that local wedding videographer a call. Is your child fascinated by the weather? Why not ask the local meteorologist some questions? If your child is older, there may be a chance for an internship of sorts—the business get free help, your child gets a new perspective.
  • You.
    Yeah, that’s right, you. Never underestimate how much knowledge you can impart as you do basic, everyday tasks. Are you planning to start a new garden in the backyard tomorrow? Invite your child along. Get him off the couch and sweat together. Explain the importance of amending the new ground—and what those little white pellets are in that bag of potting soil. Working side-by-side, you’ll get some help, your child will get some information. Alternatively, ask your child to write down five questions about any topic of interest—and then set aside time to help him research the answers online throughout the week. 
  • Books. I cannot say enough about this final item. You must encourage reading. You must. Frankly, research finds that it doesn’t even matter what the topic is, just read! It builds vocabulary and provides a mental model for later writing tasks. Go to the library, help your child find books and magazines about an area of interest, and go for it. Set aside at least thirty minutes a day. Read, read, read.

Summer should be fun. It should be a chance for you to revitalize and reconnect with your family. But make no mistake, it should not be an opportunity to send the brain into a warm hibernation. It’s your job to help ensure this doesn’t happen.

Enrich, enrich, enrich.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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