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Stemming brain drain

It’s been less than a month, but summer vacation may have already taken a firm hold in all-too-familiar ways as parents look to juggle busy work lives, alternative day care plans and kids with a lot more time on their hands.

Late-night TV, all-day video game sessions and the all-too-common “I’m bored, there’s nothing to do” refrain have replaced the structured routine of the school year.

It’s tempting to surrender to such malaise during the heat of the season, but Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System Director Mary Jean Jakubowski underlined that this time of year parents need to step up when it comes to “feeding kid’s minds.”

Research backs her up, according the National Summer Learning Association:

• Young people score higher on assessment tests at the end of the school year than the end of the summer.

• They lose about two months of math computation skills during summer vacation. Low-income students – with fewer resources than their wealthier peers – lose a similar amount in reading achievement, too.

• They also gain weight, particularly those at risk of obesity.

“Learning doesn’t just happen at school. Learning happens at home,” said Lynn Shanahan, associate professor of learning and instruction in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. “Any way that parents can instill a love of reading, and engage children in reading and writing in the summer – and the same goes with science and mathematics – it will help them maintain what they’ve learned during the school year.”

Shanahan and Jakubowski – veteran moms whose children now are mostly in their college years – provided the following tips to help kids stretch their brains and keep them fresh in the coming weeks.

A great side benefit: more family time.

1. Encourage your kids to keep reading

The written word stokes the imagination, improves vocabulary and makes kids smarter, Shanahan said.

“Many of today’s authors are creating materials and books that continue to grow and pique the curiosity of children,” Jakubowski said. “That’s what childhood is all about, learning and growing an understanding of what your environment is all about: your family core, then your extended family and community, and the world today.”

“The Hunger Games,” “Maze Runner” and “Harry Potter” are among the book series that have kindled the interest of readers during the last generation. Also expected to become meaningful summertime reading is the release this week of “Go Set a Watchman,” a novel by Harper Lee that will reshape the view of Atticus Finch, the protagonist introduced to the public 55 years ago in Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Readers want to know what happens next, before the next movie comes out,” Jakubowski said.

She and Shanahan recommended parents set aside reading time for children of all ages – as well as parents – at least five days a week, and encouraging a mix of book and online formats.

Shanahan recommended – a website with a Netflix feel that has free downloadable books. Jakubowski recommended the library website,, where anyone with a library card and pin number can download free books, videos, music and other materials. “I’m a big proponent with starting at the library because I feel comfortable about what’s on our website,” she said. “We vet what’s on the site.”

2. Make trips a well-rounded experience

“One of my roles as a parent is to help my children love learning,” Shanahan said. “That has meant actively engaging them in learning as much as possible through real-world experiences in the summer.”

Trips to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., breathe life into American history, as do upstate attractions that include the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn and Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo. There also are a host of interesting museums, art galleries, historic sites, libraries and business districts in Western New York that can be very educational, Jakubowski said.

She and Shanahan said they plan local and distant trips thoroughly – and expect their kids to do the same. Jakubowski daughters Kristen, 18, and Katelyn, 20, for years have chosen one thing to do and place to do it on vacation trips. “They do their research,” their mother said.

“Local trips support your community and engage your children in learning,” Shanahan said. “When you go to these places, you’re instilling in your children the importance of learning – and you’re learning, too.”

3. Turn your home into a lab

The two Shanahan sons grew up with a former Sweet Home elementary school teacher as a mom, and a dad, Mark, who is a Sweet Home High School chemistry teacher. They had a leg up when it came to learning in part from engaging science projects at the house. But their mom said a free website,, is loaded with dozens of similar project ideas for kids of all ages. Mike and Dan, now 17 and 20, respectively, also learned to build birdhouses at home improvement stores. Shanahan also said summertime is a great time for children to take up a musical instrument.

4. Share your kitchen

Give your children the responsibility to make at least one meal a week, and include planning, shopping for ingredients and preparing it – with help as needed – as part of the process. “Kids like feeling important and being in charge of something that they can bring to the family,” said Shanahan, who along with Jakubowski has made this a practice for years. Both families also have visited U-pick farm sites to help teach their kids about agriculture.

“Around your dinner table, you can talk about what’s going on in the news,” Jakubowski added. “Some folks tell us they read a chapter a day from a book at the dinner table. Others talk about the nutritional value of the food.”

5. Stretch the body

“Physical movement is critical and it’s one of the things we forget in learning,” Shanahan said. “We don’t just learn through our brain. We learn through our entire body. If I have any complaints about what’s going on in schooling right now, it’s the lack of physical activity during the school day. … Physical movement will increase connections in the synapses of the brain. It’s extremely important.”

“Every town has a park,” Jakubowski said. Exercise at one, “take a picnic, and take a book with you to read with the kids.”