Summer Learning
By Dawn Buckingham, M.A.

Summer is often a time of change; the school year ends, families begin their vacations, and everyone relaxes a bit from the standard schedule. It is important to remember that even though the weather changes and regular programs end, children’s interests and abilities to learn do not slow down. Summer is a great time to continue stimulating learning with new and exciting outdoor opportunities.  Keep in mind that summer and outdoor activities should be well thought-out in order to provide safe and stimulating outdoor learning experiences for children. And don’t forget the sunscreen and plenty of drinking water to keep everyone healthy.

Repurpose Your Centers
Summer is a great time to move some of your traditional learning centers outside. By evaluating your centers and lessons to determine which will be successful outdoors, you’ll also avoid the temptation to simply open the door and extend “free play” time. Structured learning activities, just like those you do in the classroom, should clearly be matched to the learning needs and outcomes of your program. Start with activities that you already include in the spring and then find ways to extend them; nature walks, for example, can and should be done at all times of the year to help children observe the changing seasons. Summer walks are filled with the excitement of fully-budded flowers, active listening for the chirping of newly hatched birds, observation of the line of ants along the sidewalk, and the discovery of hidden inset life beneath rocks.

When you return from your walk, have the children record their observations by drawing pictures to collect for a class book. Make a special book cover by inviting the children to make a rubbing. Simply place a sheet of paper on a section of tree bark and rub the side of a crayon over the paper. The texture of the bark will create an interesting pattern on the paper. You could also try having children collect leaves for a cover. Cut poster board the correct size and then dip the leaves in a diluted solution of white glue and water and place them on the poster board. Be creative! Those messy art activities that you dreaded in the winter are often managed by a quick outdoor cleanup with a hose. 

Sand and Water Outside
Sand and water play centers are also natural choices for outdoor learning. Place the sand or water table in a shaded or covered area. Add containers of water for shaping and modeling with the sand. Change the amount of water to make either “pies” or “stew!” Plastic containers, spoons, craft sticks, small vehicles, and other items will extend the play and exploration. Small plastic animals or other props will create an instant dramatic play area around the sand table as children make a farm or city. Ask questions that extend vocabulary and learning. “How is wet sand different than dry sand?” Demonstrate how to mold the sand in small containers and use the molded shapes to construct a castle.

You can use plastic tubs filled with water to create mini water tables for pairs or small groups. Be sure to add containers for pouring, pumps, measuring cups, sponges, and small items for experimenting with the concepts of sinking and floating and measurement to extend science learning. Fill the tubs with homemade bubble mix and have a bubble party. Watch the bubbles float and let children chase the bubbles. Do the same things float in the air and in the water? Test to find out!

Get Them Moving!
Large motor activities are a perfect match for a shady grass area. Create an obstacle course in the play area and see who can complete it. Bring a battery operated tape or CD player outside and dance with scarves or ribbon streamers. The outside play area is a great place to practice hopping, jumping, skipping, galloping, and running. Use cones to outline a “road” and have children ride tricycles and cars along the road. Teach safety skills by having them remember to signal for turns and stop at stop signs. On a grassy area, let the children move like bugs by crawling, wiggling, walking, hopping, or flying across the open space. Kick, toss, or roll balls to each other or into large buckets.

Explore the Garden
If you have the space, gardening is another outdoor project that children enjoy. Prepare the soil by digging and raking, planting seeds, watering, and weeding. Gardening teaches children responsibility and introduces them to the stages of plant growth.  Children feel pride and a sense of accomplishment as the tiny seedlings emerge. Incorporate the garden into snack time; radishes, carrots, beans, lettuce, peas, and zucchini can all be eaten raw or with dip and children may show more interest in sampling new vegetables when they have grown them in a class garden. Identifying fruits and vegetables at the local farmer’s market or grocery and discussing where the fruit or vegetable must have grown takes on new meaning: Some vegetables are roots and others are picked from a vine. Can the children find the new seeds in the center of the pumpkin or bean?

Simple Science
Water painting is another activity that encourages science learning. Provide buckets with water and large paint brushes. Let children “paint” the sidewalks and other surfaces with water and then watch as their creations evaporate. Where did the water go? Place a glass of ice water where the children can observe the water from the air as it condenses and forms drops on the outside of the glass. Children see how the water in the air condenses to form clouds in the same manner. “Where does rain come from?”

Bring the Outdoors Inside
Take the time to make changes indoors as well. Think of a summer vacation theme such as camping. Place rolled up sleeping bags in the library area as comfy chairs. Set up a small tent and supply a few sets of metal camp dishes. Sit around a make-believe campfire for group meetings. Create a group mural of mountains and big lake for fishing. Let children write postcards to send home. There are other themes that you could use to change your classroom: A beach, an amusement park, even a dude ranch.

Summer can be the time to keep children learning through new and exciting experiences. Don’t think of summer as a vacation from real learning, but as an opportunity to take a learning vacation. Communicate the importance of summer learning to parents and encourage them to have children take photographs or draw pictures about vacation experiences and then tell or write about what they did. Use the time children spend with extended family or grandparents to start a family tree or to listen and share stories. Make the most of the long days and good weather and have fun!

Dawn Buckingham, M.A., is an educator, curriculum developer, and independent consultant specializing in educational staff development for school districts, child care organizations and others in support of early care and elementary education. She can be reached at

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