There’s a Hole in the (Academic) Bucket… + Father’s Day Seal of Approval Winners

Dear Mr. Dad: As the school year draws to a close, I’m getting worried about my 9-year old daughter. She’s just an average student and really hates to do homework. I worry that she’ll forget a lot of what she learned over this past year and she’ll start fifth grade even further behind than she already is. What can we do?

A: I’m torn about this. On one hand, I think summers are a time for resting up, having fun, giving the mind a little time to recharge. Unfortunately, with so many kids booked into wall-to-wall camps and activities, summer can be even busier than the school year and recharging—at least mentally—is out of the question.

On the other hand, there’s the Summer Brain Drain, which is exactly what you’re worried about. Students lose, on average, 2 – 2.5 months of academic skills over the summer. Math and spelling are the subjects that get hit the hardest. Put a little differently, teachers have to spend the first month or two of the academic year reviewing material students learned—but didn’t retain—the year before. Here are a few ideas for how you might be able to plug the brain drain—or at least slow the leak down…

  • Visit the library. Most have great summer reading programs, complete with prizes for achieving reading goals.
  • Read at home. You and your child should take turns reading to each other every night, for 15-30 minutes each.
  • Look into summer schools. Sadly, only 10-20 percent of students attend one. But if your child is already weak in a subject or two, this is a great time to catch up—or possibly even get ahead.
  • Ask the teacher your child will have next year to let you borrow a few textbooks. He or she may be able to give you a summer reading list. At the very least, you can make doing a handful of math problems a prerequisite for playing computer games.
  • Don’t forget about writing. I’m not just talking about spelling and grammar—although both are important. I recently interviewed Jennifer Hallissy, author of The Write Start, who told me that “the speed and ease of children’s writing can have a major impact on their overall academic success.” Efficient writers take better notes—which makes studying a lot easier, regardless of the subject—and consistently get higher scores on written exams. Jennifer’s book has dozens of easy-to-implement activities for kids of any age.
  • Make learning fun. Of course, there are the usual standbys: trips to the zoo, museums, and planetariums. But you might also check out a few books that are filled with fun, entertaining (and, gasp, educational—but your child will never notice) activities. I’m really like the Geek Dad series by Ken Denmead, The Daring Book for Girls series by AndreaBuchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and Sean Connolly’s The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science, which isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sounds.

With the big day just around the corner, we’ve been working frantically to evaluate our largest-ever field of submissions for the MrDad.com Seal of Approval and GreatDad Recommends awards. This season’s winners include:

<ul>

<li>A very cool, reusable kit for building a kid-sized fire station, from Box-O-Mania (boxomania.com)
<li>Spanish language learning DVDs and CDs, from Whistlefritz (whistlefritz.com)
<li>A fun, Jack-in-the-Beanstalk play-and-book-in-a-box from InnovativeKids (innovativekids.com)
<li>Web Hunt and Oh, Really? Two engaging family games from Find It Games (finditgames.com)

</ul>
The complete list—as well as submission guidelines for new products and services—is at mrdad.com/seal.

Hey, I Want to Do That. No, This. No, That.

Dear Mr. Dad: My four-year-old daughter gets bored incredibly quickly. She’ll do something for five or ten minutes and then she’s up and on to something else. I’m having trouble keeping her occupied, since we run out of activities in less than an hour. We had her screened for ADD and other conditions, but the tests all came back fine. Is there some way to keep her focused for more than just a few minutes?

A: Did you know that a normal attention span for a child is 2-5 minutes for each year of age? For your daughter, that’s 8-20 (a big range, but not far from the “five or ten minutes” you mentioned).

There may be a number of issues at play here.

  • Your child’s temperament. Some children tend to be low energy, others bounce off the walls. Some are boisterous, others quiet. Some can pay attention for an hour, others have the attention span of a gnat.
  • All preschoolers are easily distracted—even the ones with long attention spans. The difference is that some children can get back to what they were originally doing, while others—like your daughter—can’t (or don’t).
  • Curiosity and excitement. There are so many things for your daughter to discover and explore in her world. She may think that if she finishes her puzzle, she won’t have time to start drawing. So, in an attempt to fit everything in, she ends up beginning a lot of activities but not finishing any.

That said, your daughter needs to develop the ability to concentrate on one task at a time and finish each activity before moving on to the next. When she starts school, she’ll be expected to complete assignments and projects in a timely and efficient manner. The sooner you help her develop those skills, the better. Here are some activities that should help.

  • Read. Hopefully you’re already doing this. But if not, it’s never too late to start. Begin with five to ten minutes and gradually increase. If your daughter won’t sit still, read anyway, but ask her to retell the story to you. If she will sit in your lap, extend story time by talking about the illustrations or asking questions (Why do you think that bunny bit the wolf?)
  • Matching games. Use pairs of identical cards—buy some or make your own. Start off with eight cards (four pairs) face down on the table. Alternate turning over one card and trying to find the match.
  • Get outside. Researchers have found that a 20-minute walk in the park greatly increases children’s attention span. Set up a scavenger hunt, pretend to be earthworms, or get a magnifying glass and identify bugs.
  • Do things she likes to do. All of us—adults or kids—will spend more time doing things we want to do than things someone else tells us to do.
  • Lifestyle check. How’s your daughter’s diet? Is she getting enough physical activity (60 minutes/day is about right)? How about sleep? (11-12 hours/day total, including naps)?
  • Use a timer. Set it for 15 minutes and explain that she (or the two of you) will paint or play or whatever until the buzzer sounds. Only then will you allow her to move on to the next activity.
  • Praise her every time she continues an activity for the full time. As her attention span gets longer, gradually increase the number of minutes on the timer. But make sure you keep your expectations reasonable by remembering the 2-5-minutes-per-year rule.

Too Much Tube?

Dear Mr. Dad: My 18-month old son is suddenly obsessed with TV. He watches at least 3-4 hours per day. My wife doesn’t see the problem since it allows her to get stuff done around the house, but I’m worried. How much TV is too much?

A: Great question—one you have every right to be concerned about. Watching too much TV is a growing problem in our society—especially for children. Studies are all over the place, but they generally show that American children watch two to six hours of television per day. Plus they spend a few more in front of other screens, watching DVDs or playing video games.
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Speak to Me, Baby

Dear Mr. Dad: I can’t help but notice that some of the kids at my daughter’s daycare are way more verbal than she is. We read to her all the time and we’re a chatty family so what gives? Are these parents doing something we’re not?

A: First things first: not all children develop language skills at the same pace. And there’s no proven connection between the age at which kids start to speak and intelligence. That said, the differences you’ve noticed at your daughter’s daycare could be a matter of genetics or, as you suggested, the parents could be doing something extra that you and your spouse haven’t tried yet.
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