Summer Activities for Kids With Learning Disorders
How to keep kids active and engaged
Clinical Expert: Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN
As we head into a very unusual summer, many parents — especially parents of kids with learning disorders — are wondering how to help their kids make the most of all this free time. With many camps and other standard summer activities off the table, how can kids continue to learn, grow and prepare for school in the fall?
Kids with learning disorders, ADHD or language difficulties are particularly vulnerable to what we call “the summer slide.” That refers to the loss of skills that a lot of kids see in reading and especially math over the summer months. Now, with the coronavirus crisis and the long break from the classroom that most kids have had, it’s even more important to help kids maintain and develop their skills over the summer.
Summer is definitely a time for everyone to loosen up a bit, but at the same time, parents can use some of the following strategies to help their kids stay on track academically, emotionally and socially.
1. Keep academics in the mix
Academic work doesn’t have to look like traditional classroom work. Remember that you can incorporate academics and learning into lots of other activities, which we’ll get into more below.
What you do this summer will look different depending on the age of your child, as well as their skill level and personality. With younger children, a good baseline is about 15 to 20 minutes of reading and math practice most days of the week. For older elementary school students that might look more like 20 to 30 minutes of reading, math and writing practice. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your child has to sit at a desk with a workbook the whole time — the idea is just to make sure that practicing skills is built into your child’s daily routines one way or another.
That said, children with diagnosed learning disabilities might need more frequent formal instruction. To get a sense of what’s best for your child, try getting in touch with your child’s teachers and learning specialists to see what you can do to reinforce your child’s skills throughout the summer. You might ask:
- Are there any specific workbooks you recommend?
- Do you have a recommended reading list we could use?
- Which online educational activities align with what my child is learning in school?
- Are there specific skills that my child could use extra practice with over the summer?
2. Maintain a routine
Especially for kids with attention and learning disorders, following consistent routines is a huge part of academic success. What’s more, having a routine lets kids know what to expect each day and reduces their anxiety, which is especially important now that kids are facing a lot of change and uncertainty. Structure and predictability let kids feel safe, stable and in control to some extent.
Summer routines can certainly be different from school routines. Depending on the age of your child, it’s often helpful to involve them in the process of setting up a routine and creating a schedule for the day. They’ll be more likely to stick to a schedule that they have helped to create because they have a little more buy-in, and because they’ll tend to choose things they enjoy. Try coming up with a list of fun activities and let them choose which ones they want to do and in what order.
It’s also important to keep bedtimes and mealtimes as consistent as possible, so that kids have some clear structure to work with. This could also be a great time to start new traditions. For example, maybe Sunday morning becomes pancake breakfast throughout the summer, and then the family takes a long walk or bike ride together after breakfast. This kind of thing doesn’t just provide predictability — it also gives kids something to look forward to, which might be missing with the lack of organized summer activities.
3. Prioritize time outdoors
It’s really important for both physical and mental health for kids to spend time outdoors, and there are lots of ways your family can do that while still following social distancing rules.
Especially for kids who really need to burn off energy, staying physically active is a key part of being able to focus mentally. What’s more, spending time outside is a great way for kids to learn about the world around them and keep their academic skills sharp in a fun, active way.
What your family does will of course depend on what kinds of outdoor spaces you have access to, but some options to consider include:
- Scavenger hunts and obstacle courses in the backyard
- Family walks, hikes, bike rides or scooter rides
- Gardening, which can be especially good for practicing math skills: How many seeds will we plant? How far apart should they go?
- Spending time at beaches, lakes or pools as long as they’re following social distancing rules. You can even set up an inflatable pool or splash pad in your yard.
- Observing the plants and animals near your home. You might get a bird feeder or encourage your child to identify the flowers you see on your walks.
If your child ordinarily plays sports, you can also help them recreate some of that structure at home. For instance, if you have a yard and your child plays soccer, set up a goal, even if it’s just a couple of cones to mark the space. Maybe they can use this time away from competition to learn new skills, practice for a new position, or focus on endurance, strength training or flexibility. Whatever they choose, setting goals and working toward them can help your child to stay engaged and focused while they’re out of school.
4. Be smart about screens
Most kids have gotten a lot more screen time than usual during the past few months. And that might still be true this summer, to some extent — especially if you’re working, giving your child screen time may be the only way to get the time you need to get everything done.
The trick is getting creative about how you use screen time, and how you find alternatives to it. Depending on what’s doable for your family right now, you might try to work in more non-screen activities as summer gets underway. In addition to outdoor activities, consider:
- Art activities. Maybe your child is interested in learning a new craft or even making a collage or sculpture out of spare materials from around the house.
- Complex projects. For example, if your child likes building with Legos, you could challenge them to build something new every day and take daily photos, so that your child can look back on their progress at the end of the summer.
- Household skills. Cooking, doing laundry, organizing closets — these are all skills that kids can learn, and they often enjoy the sense of agency that comes from helping out. Plus, practice with things like measuring and following instructions can translate into academic skills — and you might even get a little more free time for yourself!
Of course, a certain amount of screen time is inevitable. But your child’s screens have a lot more to offer than just video games and social media. There are lots of high-quality virtual resources that kids can get into this summer, and many are free or low-cost:
- Khan Academy, ABC Mouse and OutSchool offer online courses for a wide range of age groups.
- Mystery Science, Sawyer and Activity Hero have a ton of content, from music lessons to story time to yoga.
- Parks and Recreation departments often have options for virtual classes, activities and even day camps. Check out the ones in your area, or see if departments elsewhere have programs that kids from different regions can join.
Through options like these, you can incorporate some more structure and academic material into your child’s day, without setting rigid screen time rules.
5. Stay connected
With so much uncertainty around what’s safe and what’s not right now, it’s understandable that many families feel hesitant about getting out and interacting with others. But no matter what rules your family decides to follow, it’s important that your child maintains connections with friends or family — whether virtually or in person.
You might schedule online playdates, have a trusted friend over for a socially distant game in your backyard or go for a drive to say hello to friends and family from your car. If you live near an open space like a beach or a park, you could also consider meeting a small group in the open air.
The idea is to stay safe while also giving your child lots of opportunity to practice social skills and connect with loved ones, so that they can head to school in the fall (whatever that looks like!) feeling confident and supported.