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Wired & Unplugged Ways to Encourage Summer Learning

One expert discusses the merits of video games in education; another offers family learning ideas.

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Students can forget as much as two months' worth of math and reading instruction over the summer, according to some reports. To keep their children on track, many parents have enrolled them in summer learning programs. But for students who are unable to attend one, playing certain video games or practicing skills around the house can help.

"People don't often think about games as a way to exercise the brain," says Patrick Supanc, president of College and Career Readiness at textbook publisher Pearson. "But even mainstream games have some really important elements in them that help students develop important skills."

[Learn how to spend the summer before college.]

Supanc says Brainage, a Nintendo DS game, has received a lot of publicity for its educational value, but that there are other games that can help students as well. Strategy games like Civilization, SimCity, and Spore help students' decision making skills and are fairly text-heavy, so gamers have to read and interpret while playing.

"Kids are going to play games over the summer whether you want them to or not," he says. "Some games can help them develop time-management skills, teamwork skills, and critical thinking skills."

Last year, Pearson invested in educational game designer Tabula Digita, and the textbook company hopes to roll out educational games in the future. Supanc says educational games have a certain stigma behind them that developers need to get away from.

"History is littered with educational games that weren't engaging enough as far as the narrative and mechanics of the game," he says. "You felt like you were doing schoolwork … Making a game entertaining while still driving learning is a tricky thing to deliver on."

Studies have shown that video games can improve motor function in children, but Pearson and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are banking on hopes that games can become an integral part of school curricula. The Microsoft founder's foundation donated $20 million to 42 states—a portion of which will be used by Pearson and other companies to develop educational video games.

[Get summer reading tips for teens.]

Looking to keep your child engaged without firing up the Playstation? Tiffany Cooper-Gueye, CEO of BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), a nonprofit that runs free summer learning programs nationwide, has tips for maintaining younger students' math and reading skills over the summer:

Research your area: Take your child to a local park or zoo to observe local flora and fauna. Then, research what you saw online or at the library. Compare and contrast the plants and animals you saw with those of a different region, she says.

Encourage writing: "During the summer, a lot of times, kids will say they're bored," Cooper-Gueye says. "Have your child write journal entries about what they wish they were doing." If the activities are doable, plan a few days to make them a reality.

Turn chores into learning experiences: Have your child help you follow a recipe—it will help them learn fractions and calculations. Halving or doubling recipes will help even more, she says. You can also incorporate measurements into chores such as gardening by measuring water quantities and weighing yard waste.

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