fatheranddaughterplaySchool’s out for the summer! But that doesn’t mean your kids have to take a vacation from learning. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There are nearly four decades’ worth of studies out there showing a wide gap in students’ academic abilities following a summer break. Some children come back to school a bit behind where they were at the end of the previous year — which makes sense, as it seems natural to forget a few lessons when you’re busy riding bikes or hanging out by the pool. But other students return to class further ahead — having somehow learned even more math and reading concepts than their teachers had covered during the school year.

So how does this happen? And more importantly, how can you make sure your child is the one moving forward, not falling behind?

Research points to several factors that may affect what your kid learns — or forgets — over the summer. But a common thread runs through all of them…you! Across the board, the students who advance past their peers academically during time off from school are receiving more guidance and structure from adults in those months.

Guidance and structure, huh? So does that mean you have to bust out a chalkboard and play schoolteacher all summer?

Not even close.

With a few simple tricks in your pocket, you can let your kids have a ton of fun this summer while learning something at the same time! The secret is a concept called guided play.

There are two basic ways guided play can work. First, adults can create an educational setting for kids to freely explore on their own, like when you visit a children’s museum, complete with hands-on tools and specimens to examine. The second form of guided play is even easier, since you can do it anywhere and anytime you want. Simply let your kids start playing as they naturally would, then engage in that play with them — interjecting questions, comments and explanations to help your little ones get more out of playtime.

Here are some examples:

  • If your children are playing “restaurant,” apply for a job, then encourage your new workplace to include aspects like creating menus, writing down orders and adding up totals on customers’ bills.
  • If your kids are throwing a ball, suggest that they count up how many times they can catch it without dropping it, then try to break that record.
  • If your little monkeys are climbing a tree, talk about how different trees have different shapes of leaves, fruits and seeds, yet they all produce oxygen for us to breathe. (And if they fall out of the tree, you can turn it into a memorable lesson about gravity, too!)

There are many benefits of engaging in guided play with your kids.

First, it’s play. It’s healthy, fun and very different than the formal instruction the kids have been getting all year at school. If you tried to sit down and explicitly teach something that looked like a school lesson to your children right now, they’d see it coming from a mile away, and run from it at about a hundred miles an hour. In guided play, learning still happens — it’s just sneakier.

Second, kids are in charge. Even though adults are involved in guided play, children always take the lead. And since they’re free to follow their own interests, they’ll be motivated to continue the activity for longer periods of time, get satisfaction from the things they learn and find emotional exhilaration from being in control.

Third, it’s effective. Research studies comparing preschool programs find no lasting academic advantage for kids in highly academic versus play-based schools. In fact, kids in more rigorous programs sometimes fare worse in creativity, emotional well-being and social development. Guided play is great for gently incorporating academic concepts that are important for school into playtime, allowing parents to maximize children’s learning — and fun!

Ready to start playing? Here are five easy tips for applying guided play to any situation you find yourself in:

  1. Look for learning opportunities. Join whatever activity your child is already doing and look for ways to subtly make it more educational. Think about what your child might get out of it and gently guide her in that direction.
  2. Demonstrate discovery. Child development researchers taught some kids about the features of a new toy, then pretended to “accidentally discover” the same features in front of other kids. Those who watched the experimenter explore and discover engaged in more active exploration themselves. So model the curiosity you hope to see!
  3. Ask plenty of questions. Questions can encourage your kiddo to think about cause and effect (“Why do you think that happens?”), to make and test hypotheses (“What do you think will happen if we did this…?”), and lots more.
  4. Add information. To maximize learning during play, don’t hesitate to give explanations, provide definitions and describe how new information relates to stuff your child already knows.
  5. Compare and contrast. Highlighting similarities and differences can be very helpful in learning, so point them out to your kids whenever you can. “Look! That apple is red, but this apple is green!” or “This apple, and Daddy’s face, are both red! Daddy should remember to wear sunscreen next time!”

There’s your lesson for the day, parents! Now go out and sneak another one right under your kids’ noses!

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