A teenager I happen to know quite well (seeing that he lives in my house) announced last week that summer is time off for his brain.  Well, nothing fires up the parental learning plans like a teenager who announces his plans to learn as little as possible over the summer.  Suffice it to say that the young man has a wonderfully enriching summer on his way.  And — I promise you this — he will enjoy it.  Like I say, I know the kid.

Actually, my wife and I have planned almost every summer as a time of learning, and much of that knowledge can never be learned in a book.  We have dragged our children through museums and libraries all over the world, retraced movements of battles, seen the seats of government power, sat in cockpits of modern supersonic fighters, been into the Everglades to spot dangerous wildlife (boys especially love to find anything that can eat or kill you), and shared a disastrous experience of car sickness while discussing God’s creation of the world just after visiting the Grand Canyon.  (HINT: When big sister says little brother is about to blow . . . listen to her, stop the car, and UNLOCK THE CAR DOORS.  That last part turns out to be really important.)

The Washington Post just reported that educators are particularly concerned about what they call the “summer brain drain.”  Evidently, educators now believe that almost all students lose between two and 2 1/2 months of math computational skills over the summer.  The good news is that most of the students can recapture that learning quite quickly in the fall.  The bad news is the reminder that a brain in neutral is a brain losing ground.

The data on reading ability are particularly interesting. Children who read over the summer grow in reading knowledge and comprehension. No surprise there. The really interesting part of this research is the suggestion that a wide variety of summer experiences can provide background knowledge that turns out to be indispensable to growth in the understanding of what is read. “Life experiences other than reading can lead to advantages in reading comprehension,” advised Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “If you don’t have a reading problem or a problem with decoding . . . your ability to read a passage is dependent on having some relevant background knowledge.”

The gap in rich learning experiences turns out to have much to do with socio-economic factors. Children who are deprived of the kinds of experiences that come through travel, conversations with parents, cultural experiences, and contact with nature turn out to have problems reading that have nothing to do with words on a page and everything to do with missing background knowledge.

This research should encourage parents to think of the summer — and particularly of summer vacation plans — as an opportunity to provide invaluable “background knowledge” for the entire family. Summer vacation affords a priceless opportunity for families to learn together. To our shame, many families drive right past incredible opportunities for learning. How did the states get their shape? Where exactly does this river flow? What is this historical marker telling us?

Turning the summer into a fun and enriching learning opportunity is, seen in this light, a parental responsibility. It is also a lot of fun. During the school year, whatever the educational model, children are largely directed to learn what is required by the curriculum and, in many cases, individual learning projects and the interests of the children are left behind. The summer affords an all-too-brief opportunity to let your children learn about what interests them the most — and become teachers of their siblings (and sometimes their parents as well). Where exactly was the “Little House on the Prairie?” What are the different kinds of bridges and how are they used? Just what is the difference between a frog and a toad?

You do not have to go far to find unparalleled opportunities for learning. While travel remains one of the most intellectually enriching experiences for people of all ages, there are plenty of opportunities close at home. Have you taken your children to the county courthouse or City Hall? Have you plundered all opportunities to visit the museums, libraries, and cultural assets close to home? Do your children even know about the wildlife they can find in the grass outside the back door?

Christian parents are responsible for a particular stewardship of learning, for we are responsible to inculcate a Christian worldview and distinctively Christian patterns of thinking in our children. The summer affords an unparalleled opportunity for this as well, as every event, observation, book, news story, and road trip offers a constant and precious opportunity to turn our children’s questions into moments of timely learning.  Take every opportunity to add to the Christian “background knowledge” that leads to a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the Christian faith.

So enjoy the summer and make the most of it, whether hitting the beach, resting in the mountains, climbing the local hill, or visiting grandparents. Just remember to maximize every opportunity for learning and to provide important “background knowledge” for the education of children. Who knows? Parents who pay attention to this might well avoid their own “summer brain drain.”