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7 Ways to Keep Your Kids’ Brains from Turning to Mush This Summer

Dan Tynan

As a great educational theorist once observed, when released each summer from the rigorous oversight of academic professionals, children often abandon such fundamentals as the use of writing implements and reading of scholarly tomes.

Actually, the original statement looked more like this:

7 Ways to Keep Your Kids’ Brains from Turning to Mush This Summer

Numerous studies show that when school’s out for summer, kids’ brains start to drain. When the next academic year starts, they often spend a month or more catching up to where they were when vacation began.

Here’s where the current generation’s obsession with digital devices can work in your favor. Obviously you don’t want them spending all summer with their eyeballs glued to a screen. They should be out in the fresh air running, swimming, and getting sweaty (don’t forget the sunscreen). But by combining the real world around them with the virtual world of devices, you can engage children’s brains and bodies at the same time.

“Parents need to recognize that technological devices are also part of the real world,” notes Cynthia Baron, a professor of digital media at Northeastern University in Boston. “They need to look for ways for children to use phones and tablets for active learning and positive socializing instead of passive viewing or endless texting.”

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(Thinkstock)

I asked a bunch of smart people how to use tech to keep kids’ minds from melting like a snow cone on a hot August night. They gave me more ideas than I could possibly fit in one column, but here are some of the best:

1. Seed the need to read.
Obviously, the top priority for parents each summer is to get their kids to read more. One of the best ways to do that is to remove dead trees from the equation. Early readers will appreciate digital storybook apps like Speakaboos and MeeGenius, suggests Nancy MacIntyre, CEO of Fingerprint Digital, a mobile learning and play network. These clever apps employ narration, pictures, and songs to help youngsters develop language skills while being entertained.

If you’ve got a tween or teen, buy her a subscription to Scribd. For $9 a month, you gain access to a library of more than 400,000 titles, many of them children’s and young-adult classics like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Lemony Snicket series. You can read them online or download up to 10 of them at a time to any phone, tablet, or ebook reader. Scribd offers a free one-month trial; click here for a special promo code (available only to Yahoo Tech readers) to bump that to three months.

Graphite.org, a division of Common Sense Media aimed at educators, has more excellent suggestions here on how to instill the joys of reading in your texting-obsessed teens.

2. Send the kids to virtual camp.
So you waited too long to make reservations for your kids at summer camps and now they’re all full? Send them to a virtual one instead. For the third consecutive year, Google+ has partnered with Makezine to offer Maker Camps to literally millions of kids for six weeks this summer. Using Google Hangouts, kids can log on and learn how to build techno-crafty things like robots and rockets, or go on virtual field trips to places like NASA’s Ames Research Center and Pixar Studios.

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Want to learn how to power a piano using bananas? You’ll have to sign up for Maker Camps.

Attendance requires signing up for a Google+ account, which has a minimum age of 13, so younger kids must be accompanied by a parent with an account. Camps start on July 7 and run through August 15. The best part: Unlike virtually every other summer camp, these are totally free.

3. Make like J.J. Abrams.
You know the inevitable “What I did over the summer” essay teachers still force kids to write during the first week of school? Turn it into a movie instead using smartphone cameras, advises Ryan Eash, a former teacher turned education evangelist for TechSmith, a maker of screen and video capture software.

“They can take pictures and video while running around outside, edit them together using an app like Camtasia Studio or iMovie, then write out a script to add voice-over narration describing all the exciting things they did,” he says.

Or they can turn it into a horror movie and call it “Paranormal Summer Activity.”

4. Create a digital scavenger hunt.
Encourage your young’uns to use an inexpensive camera or their phones to find and snap photos of patterns they find in unexpected places, like letters of the alphabet made by found objects or animals in the clouds, suggests Northeastern’s Baron. Then have them share their findings via Instagram, Pinterest, or other social media sites (if they’re old enough, of course).

Younger kids can use an app like ABC Spy to take photos of objects that start with particular letters — A for apple, B for butter, and so on — and then build slide shows out of them.

These kinds of activities not only get children out of the house, but they also enhance their visual acuity and pattern recognition, Baron says. These skills will serve them well later in life.

5. Go geocaching.
This is essentially treasure hunting for geography nerds. Using any GPS device, you locate an item someone has hidden in a public place by searching for its geographical coordinates. Once you’ve found it, you write your name in the log book contained within and then move on to the next cache.

“A quick Google search for your city or state plus ‘geocaching’ will bring results for your area,” says Brian Bennett, customer solutions engineer for TechSmith. “You can use Google Maps and a mobile phone to narrow down your search area, or create your own Google map to mark your found caches and photos.”

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There are a million geocaches in the naked city. You might even be sitting on one.

Even easier: Sign up for a free account at Geocaching.com, and then plug in your ZIP code and view a map of all the caches in your area. The site lists more than 2.4 million caches stashed over the past 14 years. You can also download the mobile version (free on Windows Phone, $8 to $10 for iOS or Android) to take with you on the hunt.

6. Unleash their inner Jackson Pollock.
Nothing beats giving your kids an easel, some brushes, and some water-based paints and telling them to make some art. Not as messy but no less creative is the National Gallery of Art’s free Brushster Web app, which lets anyone create his own abstract art using nothing but a mouse — no drop cloth or cleanup required. It’s perfect for a rainy day or when it’s just too darned hot out. The Shockwave-based site works only on Windows PCs; Mac owners will have to download a separate app.

7. Tell them to fly a kite.
Come on, you know you want to. Sites like My Best Kite,Kitebuilder, and KiteLife can not only show your kids how to build one; they can also tell them where to get the materials and how to meet up with other high fliers.

The key to nearly all of these things is getting your kids to use the amazing digital tools they carry everywhere to explore the world around them. And if it gets them out of your hair for a few hours and keeps them from whining “I’m so bored!” — so much the better. 

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.