How playtime with a purpose can keep kids learning
By Renee Haines
It is the annual dilemma of parents. Children are allowed to abandon their schoolbooks and homework for a months-long summer recess. Hurray, declare the kids. Oh no, think some worried parents. What if everything they learned in school will be forgotten?
Fears of a summer brain drain have led to educational programs that bridge the school year-summer recess gap. These can include special workbooks and interactive learning tools/software for laptops and computer tablets designed to keep kids engaged in learning activities.
But worried parents can go too far if they insist on structured activities that duplicate what schools already do, says education professor Belinda Flores of the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“Kids do not need to be behind a textbook or doing worksheets. They need to be actively engaged – both body and mind. We need to allow children to play,” says Flores, who chairs the Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies at the university’s College of Education and Human Development.
“When you are engaged in play, you are engaging your mind and imagination. You’re not using a workbook to think,” she says. “That helps us think about different concepts in different ways.” If kids watch too much TV, “they’re passive learners. We want them to be active learners,” Flores says. “We tend to stay indoors in the modern world. We should let kids make mud pies like we did.”
Flores recommends taking kids to public libraries with free story-time hours or community gardens to learn how plants grow. If no public gardens are nearby, “that’s something that can be done in your backyard,” she says. She also cites learning opportunities at summer camps, museums and just going outdoors to explore.
Hands-on play is a central focus at DoSeum, San Antonio’s uniquely kid-centric museum. Here, the goal is to allow kids to “become creative problem-solvers through hands-on activities.” Children can play on a musical staircase, solve cases at the Spy Academy or play in a pretend veterinary clinic stocked with stuffed animals.
San Antonio’s Witte Museum offers free admission on Tuesday afternoons. Admission is also free Tuesday afternoons and Sunday mornings at The San Antonio Museum of Art.
Parents have dozens of children’s day or away summer camps to choose from. UTSA offers archaeology camps as well as various camps for kids which focus on writing, technology, sports and engineering. San Antonio’s Southwest School of Art offers one- and two-week Summer Art Studio classes for kids ages 5 to 18 which are led by professional artists. Here, the goal is to allow kids to embrace their inner artist and hone their creative skills.
Camp Showbiz at the nonprofit Magik Theatre in downtown San Antonio’s Hemisfair Park allows kids to participate in theatrical productions. Here, “imagination is education,” according to the school. “The Magic Theatre’s Camp Showbiz summer camp fosters knowledge retention through the creation of literacy-based theater, using problem solving, the artistic process and teamwork skills,” says Shelly Weber, the theater’s director of education.
Alicia Heintz of San Antonio learned by trial and error how to motivate her kids, now 16 and 18, to keep their minds engaged during the summer – but not to the point of becoming overwhelmed.
“There’s a real tendency to over-program kids, and they get stressed. They feel like they don’t have any downtime,” she says. That can be especially true for kids with working parents whose likely already face more programmed activities during the school year.
Her kids’ schedules often involved arriving early at school, attending after-care programs following the standard school day and then grappling with homework each night. “The whole day was intensely scheduled,” she says.
Heintz enrolled her kids at summer camps “because that definitely helped me as a working parent and kept kids interested,” she says. “They were active and they were outside, and they loved it.” But Heintz faced an end-of-summer dilemma.
When the school year is followed by a full schedule of summer activities with no unscheduled breaks, it can be tough for kids to instantly transition to the start of yet another school year, she discovered. Her secret? Her children were more eager to return to the classroom when she gave them nothing to do before the start of school. “A little decompression is a good thing,” she says. “I liked them to get a little bored before school started, so they were ready to go back.”