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This Summer, Let the World Be Your Classroom

Picture this: You’re on the road to summer vacation, and your kids are rallying around an anti-academia battle cry: “Summer ain't no time for learnin'!” Faulty grammar aside, the sentiment is all too common, and it’s one that parents and educators struggle to counter during the months when school is out. 

But as a teacher of STEM education for the past two decades, I’d argue that summer experiences – whether you’re heading on vacation, taking a family road trip, or just enjoying an adventurous weekend close to home – are the ideal opportunity to foster a lifelong learner mentality.

Let’s explore a few easy ways you can transform those “daunting school standards” into summer fun:

1. Where the Wild Things Are. From the plants and critters all around us to the stars shining overhead, nature has always inspired human curiosity – and with your kids out of the classroom, there’s no better time to learn from the great outdoors.

Are your kids enthusiastic about outer space? Host a full moon party! Have your young learners follow the moon phases to build up excitement in advance, using white board and dry erase markers to keep track of the countdown. You can also review the relationship between the sun, moon and earth – and even choreograph a “planetary orbit dance” to debut at the party.

For families with avid anglers, make your next fishing trip an experiment. Invite your kids to hypothesize about which fish prefer which types of bait.  Then, collect data (your fish haul and your bait count) to test your hypothesis scientifically. Animal lovers may also enjoy collecting and comparing animal tracks using water and quick-setting plaster.

2. Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Road trips can be full of surprises, ranging from fascinating museums and natural parks to wacky roadside attractions. On top of that, visiting a new place can be a learning experience in itself: When our family traveled through the Southwest a few years back, we were awed by how the desert landscape’s mountains and canyons revealed millions of years of geologic change. 

But you don’t have to go West to enjoy stunning vistas or new discoveries – wherever your trip takes you, you’re sure to find something new. Make each of your kids a Family Trip 2023 Passport, where they can draw the most exciting discoveries they found at each stop along the way. At the end of the trip, it’ll become a personalized souvenir. 

If you’re heading out for a family hike or an afternoon in the local park, challenge your kids to navigate the outdoors with a DIY compass. (Making a compass at home is easier than it sounds – all you’ll need is a bowl, some water, a piece of magnetized iron and a quick online tutorial.) This can bridge into a wider discussion of different forms of electromagnetic energy, and how humans try to harness them.

3. Cloudy With a Chance of Creativity. Whether you’re at home or on the go, everyday household supplies are a teacher’s (and parent’s) best friend. Do you have a marble or a small rolling ball? Can you get your hands on tape, glue, straws and paper?  Then you have everything you need to construct a good ol’ fashioned roller coaster machine. Use the straws for structural support and create tracks with the paper. Then, drop the marble from a high start position and see how it rolls! This is an excellent exploration and application of potential and kinetic energy, a major K-12 standard.  

Have a bag of leftover marshmallows and some toothpicks? Challenge the family to see who can build the tallest tower using just those two materials. Bonus points for towers that can meet stricter criteria, like holding up the most weight without falling. (You can use small stones, coins or candies in a cup as test weights.) Friendly competitions like these are a fun way to get your kids fired up about trying something new.

No matter where your summer takes you, the bottom line is simple: Have fun! By letting educational experiences be a natural, organic part of your family’s adventure, you’ll have the kids learning before they know it – and most of all, they’ll be excited to keep on learning for a lifetime.


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