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By Mark Armao
July 3, 2020
Alex Eben Meyer for Money

Summer’s in full swing, but like everything else about 2020, it’s far from normal.

For elementary school students, the start of summer usually signals a long-awaited flight from the classroom to sunny days spent visiting friends, playing sports or splashing in the city pool. But after the coronavirus pandemic closed many typical summer activities and camps, the end of school prompted many schoolchildren to move seamlessly from remote learning to the remote control.

Teachers encourage students to sprinkle some educational activities into their TV and gaming schedules, though, as this year’s school closures and other academic disruptions affecting more than 50 million students may worsen the so-called “summer slide,” or the learning loss that occurs when school is out of session. According to a recent study, students in grades 3 through 8 could lose roughly 30 percent of their learning gains in reading and more than half their gains in math compared to a typical school year.

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“The research is pretty clear that the more interruptions that you have to the rhythm of the school calendar, the greater the slump,” says educational consultant Katherine McKnight, founder of Engaging Learners, which works with educators to enhance student-literacy strategies. “After summer break, it always takes a while to get the kids back up to speed, and this will only be exacerbated by COVID-19.”

To prevent students from losing ground, many parents are looking for digital tools to keep their children engaged in instructional material over the summer. A quick online search will reveal no shortage of educational websites and apps, but finding an effective teaching tool requires more than a few cursory clicks of the mouse, McKnight says.

The longtime teacher encourages parents to seek digital tools that emphasize instruction while building critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as opposed to resources that are either purely informational or geared toward product-marketing.

Alex Kajitani, a middle-school math instructor and former California teacher of the year, says he favors sites that help students build on their number sense in a relatable way. Known as the “Rappin’ Mathematician” for his hip-hop-inspired lessons on fractions and multiplication, Kajitani says parents should be wary of math games and other apps that drill students on information they already know without teaching them anything new.

“If they don’t know it, then the website becomes this frustrating mess—like playing trivia when you don’t know any of the answers,” Kajitani says, adding that parents should ask themselves: “Are they going to have learned something or just tuned out for 20 minutes as they played this game?”

While educators often underscore the need for digital materials that are tied to curricula—with lessons that build on one another and correspond to academic standards—the teachers also acknowledge that the tools must be fun and interactive to hold students’ attention, especially for younger children.

“When students use these tech tools, we want them to be really engaged and play games and make things, and not feel like they’re just doing digital worksheets,” says Lori Elliott, an educational consultant with a focus on integrating technology into instruction. “We want kids to be ready for next year, but we also want them to have fun.”

Here are some free or low-cost educational resources for families:

ABCya

With more than 400 educational games for children in grades Pre-K through 6, ABCya is used in classrooms throughout the nation to help students practice their skills in a variety of subjects. The activities were designed to align with Common Core standards, and can be sorted by grade and subject. Young learners can master the parts of speech by blasting asteroids in an arcade-style game, or take measurements of garden treasures in “Strolling With My Gnomies.” The games are available for free on the ABCya website, while a $6 to $10 monthly subscription is required to access games on the company’s mobile app.

Khan Academy

The nonprofit organization offers free video-based lessons and practice exercises in math, reading, grammar and other subjects. In response to school closures, Khan Academy created multiple resources for parents, including daily schedule templates for elementary students and weekly math learning plans for grades 3 through 6. The organization also launched a virtual summer camp with themed activities for Pre-K to second-grade learners via the Khan Academy Kids app.

Coolmath

With multiple platforms featuring math games, quizzes and text-based explanations, the Coolmath website was created in 1997 to convince people that “cool + math is an equation that makes sense.” The Coolmath4Kids site includes activities for children 12 and under, while Coolmath Games incorporates a variety of logic games and puzzles for all ages. The mobile app is available for free on Android and iOS devices, and certain features can be unlocked with a subscription.

PBS KIDS

The PBS KIDS suite of resources features a robust lineup of videos, games and apps for young children. With a separate webpage devoted to parenting resources, the site offers a sprawling array of free content aimed at helping kids with not only math and literacy but also social and emotional skills. PBS KIDS also offers arts-and-crafts activities for younger children, while middle-school students can find hands-on engineering challenges on the Design Squad Global site.

Epic!

Focusing on reading and literacy, Epic gives users access to a library of more than 40,000 books for children 12 and under. The mobile app, which costs $7.99 per month after a free trial, also features audiobooks, “read-to-me” books, learning videos and quizzes. Parents can track their child’s progress in terms of books completed, hours read and pages turned.

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