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Flint Stephens, Flint Stephens
Local communities offer a wide range of summer programs for children. Highland's youth fishing club, shown here, sees trout being stocked. Local communities offer a wide range of summer programs for children. Highland's youth fishing club, shown here, sees trout being stocked.

Most children eagerly await the start of their summer break from school. For parents, however, those unstructured and unscheduled weeks can create extra challenges.

Educational research studies suggest that students lose knowledge during the summer months. Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia indicated that the summer loss equaled about one month on a grade-level equivalent scale, and the effect was more pronounced for math than for reading.

Parents can help avoid summer-break knowledge loss by keeping their children engaged and learning. Fortunately, concerned parents can draw on many resources.

Summer educational help available for little or no cost can be found in many local libraries. The Salt Lake City Public Library System offers a full slate of activities for children, beginning in June and continuing throughout the summer. Many of these activities extend beyond the traditional reading realm.

For example, beginning in June, a monthly Phun with Physics activity will bring physicists and astronomers from the University of Utah for hands-on demonstrations using ordinary items. A complete list of activities is available at www.slcpl.org/news/index/35

An Internet search for "summer activities for children" produces a virtually endless array of ideas for entertaining and educational activities. One site, www.frugaldad.com, lists 14 days of inexpensive or free things to do with children. One of the suggestions is to have a day for old-fashioned board games like chess, checkers and backgammon. Many children today don't realize that games don't always require a computer or joystick.

Most parents know Scholastic as a company that offers inexpensive books for children through fliers sent home by teachers. Scholastic recommends taking advantage of nontraditional reading and education opportunities. For example, if a child enjoys watching cooking shows, the child and a parent could look up online recipes together and then cook them together for more reading practice. The measuring and cooking process helps with math skills as well as with reading.

Local communities also can be a resource, and most have a website to make residents aware of the available activities. As an example, Highland in Utah County offers summer reading programs for ages 5 through adult. The city also has a monthly family summer story time. The monthly theme can be used to help generate educational activities.

The late Ruth Peters was a nationally known clinical psychologist who specialized in treating children and families. She recommended discussing summer educational activities with a child's teacher.

"The summer months are an excellent time for your child to fill in learning gaps or zoom ahead with enrichment activities at supplemental learning centers, or via tutors or last year's teacher," she said. "Your child's teacher is an excellent resource to give you ideas for summer books to read and math workbooks to complete in between play and television watching."

Summer is an excellent time to help children develop good work habits. Parents can provide children with a list of small daily chores to complete before they are allowed to turn on computers, games, television or to play with friends.

In 1976, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball said, "We should train our children to work, and they should learn to share the responsibilities of the home and the yard. ... Children may be given assignments to take care of the garden, and this will be far better than to have them for long hours sitting at a television."

In addition to visiting libraries, museums and parks, children also need time to play and interact with other children. Research suggests unstructured pretend play can help child development in a variety of ways.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky said that when a child can pretend that a broomstick is a horse, it demonstrates the ability to separate the object from the symbol. While a broom is not a horse, it is possible to call a broom a horse and even to pretend to ride it. According to Vygotsky, the ability to think abstractly is a huge mental leap that play can help facilitate.

Summer is the prime season for spending lots of time outdoors. Studies show that children who play outside each day enjoy benefits ranging from stronger immune systems to being fitter and having increased levels of Vitamin D.

Whether they spend time outdoors or indoors, in structured or unstructured activities, perhaps the best thing parents can do is take advantage of the summer break to spend time with their children.

Flint Stephens has a master's degree in communications from Brigham Young University. He is author of "Mormon Parenting Secrets: Time-Tested Methods for Raising Exceptional Children." His blog is www.mormonparenting secrets.com.