It’s science: Summer brain drain is real—but there’s an easy way to stop it

Worried about learning loss due to last year's school closures and now summer? Research proves there's an easy, effective and practically free way to fight summer learning loss—and it works for every age.

summer brain drain during pandemic

For parents and kids, we are embarking upon another summer that is going to be different from any other we've known before. While many of the usual summer activities are still on the menu, from sprinklers to sleeping in, many still are not, including the camps and summer programs parents have relied on in years past to keep kids busy and engaged.

Add in many months of lost academic progress due to pandemic-related school closures, and you may be wondering if your child's run-of-the-mill summer brain drain is going to be a serious concern once school starts up again.

As it turns out, there's a simple solution for summer brain drain that is readily available and costs practically nothing. It's reading.

Reading is one of the best brain-building activities you can do to help ensure that your kids don't lose vital academic skills as a result of school closures and the "summer slide." Research tells us that reading can reduce summer learning loss, or brain drain, that kids experience when they are out of school for an extended period of time—like during the summer… or a pandemic.


Yes, summer brain drain is real.

Research spanning over 100 years shows that kids typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer. And based on standardized test scores, a 13-study meta-analysis found that, on average, kids lose about a month of learning skills and knowledge each summer, no matter their race, IQ or gender.

But learning isn't just about what can be measured at school.

Kathleen Lynch, an education policy researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has found that home-based activities, like reading, are more indicative of academic learning than any other activity.

In fact, research tells us that reading independently—and talking about the books and stories your child is reading—seems to have an even greater influence on your kids' academic growth than summer camps or vacations. What makes the difference is "the daily conversations that are sophisticated and expand children's vocabularies, and being read to regularly by seasoned readers, one-on-one," said Dr. Scott Davies at McMaster University. Bonus: Encouraging older kids to read to younger ones is a win on every level.

Reading is the best way to boost your child's brain power when they're not in school.

In fact, kids who read during the summer gain an average of one month of reading proficiency over kids who do not. Those kids who don't read lose an average of two to three months proficiency, and over time, those lost months can add up to years. By high school, two-thirds of the reading achievement gap in particular can be attributed to summer learning loss during the elementary years.

So don't worry if your child isn't participating in their usual summer programs, mama. These quiet days with family can enrich your kid's time away from school and offer valuable learning moments, too. Read, talk about stories together, play games and remember that kids don't need to be in school (or camp) to learn. The skills kids pick up during the summer from their families and communities aren't as easy to measure, but they are real.

Bottom line: Brain drain can be a concern, but don't underestimate the value of what you can do outside the classroom to help fight a summer academic slide. Connecting with your kids through reading and through slowing down and savoring this summer will help keep their minds sharp and relationships close.

If you're looking for more resources to prevent summer brain drain, here are some of our favorites:

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