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10 things to do with kids before school starts to make them smarter (or at least avoid summer brain drain)

Nicole Villalpando
nvillalpando@statesman.com

My kids might be becoming less and less intelligent with each second this summer. They’ve been doing a lot of mindless YouTube watching. Pick up a book? Are you kidding, Mom? Go out and play? Forget it.

They are experiencing the summer brain drain … those three months of the year when the things they learned in school slowly leave their brains.

In the mid-1990s, Johns Hopkins University did research on this topic and found that lower-income kids who couldn’t afford academic programs like camps during the summer entered school more than two months behind in reading and math than their middle-class peers who were enrolled in such programs.

Even beyond the academics, James Bray, an associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and family psychologist, says kids lose the habit of learning. “If you take two or three months off, you get out of the habit of focusing and learning,” he says. It can take weeks or months to get back into that habit, he says, rather than being able to just jump right in at the start of the school year.

Learning helps in brain development, Bray says. It’s one of those things — to be a better learner, you have to practice learning.

That doesn’t mean that kids have to hit learning with the same intensity in the summer that they did during the school year. “It’s important to take some time off,” he says, “But it’s important to continue to engage in activities.”

Austinite and University of Texas graduate Cristal Glangchai founded VentureLabs and VentureGirls to teach kids how to think like entrepreneurs using science technology engineering and math skills. She also has four children and she gets that not everyone can afford to do a different summer camp each week, but what they can do is turn their home into the lab and encourage kids to think as scientists and entrepreneurs. It’s taking fun ideas a step further. “How can we take an idea and turn it into a product and turn it into a company?” she asks.

That might mean that your kids decide to make their own Lego kits and sell them to their friends, or they try hydroponics and sell their plants to the neighbors.

With Bray and Glangchai’s help, here are 10 cool things you could do with the last few weeks of summer to get your kids thinking again:

1.  Get reading, and not just the books teachers assigned them, but the ones they want to read. (If they need a list of suggested books, columnist Sharyn Vane has one at  austin360.com.) Austin Public Library’s branches have daily activities at the library for kids — everything from story tellers to art projects. Kids can even join a book group. Several programs offer incentives to read. Check out the ones from the  Austin Public LibraryBookPeople and  Half Price Books.

2. Observe the world around you and then ask “what if” questions. That means you look at the moon one night and ask, “what if we could colonize the moon? What would that take?” Get kids thinking big thoughts. Also ask them: “What did you try today?” “What did you fail at today?” “What’s one cool thing you learned today?”

3. Classify everything and anything. If your kid is interested in the cicadas that are causing a racket at your house, have him research the different kind of cicadas or even all the different insects he sees.

4. Turn trash into treasure. Use what’s in your recycling bin to make art or a game or a new product. Nothing good in your bin? Take a trip to the Austin Creative Reuse (6406 N. Interstate 35, No. 1801,  austincreativereuse.org) to pick up supplies for an art project.

5. Take an online class. Instructibles.com has classes for kids but it also has a Fidget Spinners design challenge going on right now.  DIY.com also has classes. Some you have to pay for, but you can pay $49.95 for two years of instructions. Right now you can make a rocket with four videos. The good thing is it’s not just making the thing,  DIY.com classes also explain the “why” behind the class.

6. Experiment with 1,000 ways to make one thing. Slime is big right now. Make it with corn starch and water, try it with glue and Borax, or vinegar, baking soda and skim milk. Try it in different colors with different add-ins like glitter. We found recipes at  homesciencetools.com. Don’t like slime? Think about making Play-doh or even ice cream or smoothies.

7. Play board games or card games (or better yet, invent a board game). Games teach us how to communicate as well as to use math and reading skills. Plus, you’re doing something together as a family. Just make sure to set the ground rules that winning isn’t everything.

8. Learn a new technology. Check out  hourofcode.com for coding activities and games for all ages. You can code with characters like Moana, Elsa and Gumball for the younger kids, but for the middle school and up kids, hourofcode.com has more activities. Shh, don’t tell them. Coding is actually using math and logic skills.

9.  Take an in-person class. The  Thinkery now has $8 classes on Saturdays and Sundays. You can do things like dissect a cow eye or make a e-wearable fashion piece that lights up. You also can find classes at Home Depot and Michael’s, or take an art class at Art Garage or other local stores.

10. Watch TV. Yikes! Really? Well, starting Sunday, it’s Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Why not learn something new about sharks? If sharks aren’t your kids’ jam, you can go to  PBS Learning Media to look up old shows and search for content by topic. So if, for example, someone in your house is interested in black holes, you can find episodes of “Nova,” “Quest,” “Space Time” and “Physics Girl.” It also categorizes shows by ideal audience age, too. You also can find good content at  PBS Digital Studios and on the  PBS Digital Studios YouTube channel. Shows your kids might love include “Physics Girl,” “BrainCraft,” “It’s … Gross Science!” and Austin-based “It’s Okay to Be Smart” with biologist Joe Hanson.

Need more ideas for the summer? Find our summer fun guide at  austin360.com/raisingaustin.