This summer, let’s help our kids enjoy their summer and sharpen their minds for the next school year. Many children consider summer a sacred, care-free, no homework zone. But slacking off the entire time can cause students to forget what they’ve learned and that puts them behind for the next school year. Often referred to as “summer brain drain”, according to the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore, every fall many teachers find themselves re-teaching skills lost during the lazy days of summer.

“Kids are naturally curious,” says Matthew Tarpley, Headmaster of The Aurora Day School at our Tucker Campus. “What they want is to engage in learning in areas of their interest and involve family and friends.” Summer Brain Camps at Aurora incorporate, among other things, Project Based Learning: a method of highly effective instruction proven to increase academic achievement, understanding and retention of learning as well as improve critical thinking, communication and teamwork.

Project Based Learning is the way most adults learn and it’s the way most children learn in their area of interest, which then grows into hobbies and strengths. So why not begin where your child is and build a great summer of learning fun?

My initial experience with that concept goes back to when my children were still very young. Looking back to the summer learning activities I created for my girls, I now realize they were all Project Based Learning. I built their summer projects based on a few critical principles:

- Their areas of interest
- The family’s summer schedule and plans
- Their academic weaknesses from the previous year
- Pre-Learning objectives for the next school year

I’ve experienced the success achieved through Project Based Learning with my own children and with the students at the Aurora Day Schools and Aurora’s Summer Learning Programs. Because of this, we have structured our intensive summer learning camps around the core ingredients of Project Based Learning. Our five Summer Brain Camp Themes: Creative Expressions, Splishin’ and Splashin’, Weird Science, Moovin’ and Groovin’, and our newest offering in partnership with Ohio Dreams Action Sports Camp near Columbus, OH, serve as the jumping off points for engaging students in staying sharp and moving ahead. We carefully measure what our campers learn and we routinely see gains of 1-2 years for each camp session via Project Based Education and Neurocognitive programs.

A key ingredient in Project Based Learning is demonstrating that you have learned the material. I have often said, “We all know the best way to learn something is to teach it. We learn best by teaching.” So, each week, my girls had the opportunity to teach each of us something they learned. This kept the curiosity level high and significantly built their confidence. And we incorporate this same principle at Aurora today.

Three examples of our Project Based Learning Fun Summers:

Colonial Times:
When my girls were the age that American Girl® dolls were all they wanted to talk about, my youngest daughter, Audrey, loved the colonial doll, Felicity Merriman. Her high interest in Felicity provided the framework for our summer that year. My oldest daughter, Lauren, was 12 at the time and although her interest in American Girl Dolls had begun to wane, Lauren knew all the stories and served in the roll of teacher for Audrey on many occasions. Additionally, American History was a subject Lauren would experience her next school year. So began our summer learning journey.

American History and Reading. We set the timeline. Felicity lived in Colonial Williamsburg just prior to the Revolutionary War. Revolutionary War = July 4th = summer vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia, where the story of Felicity, her friends and family and her life are available for us to experience today.

But, a vacation to a historical American city was not the object here. The vacation only served as the apex of this experiential summer, and there was much more to see and do around Atlanta in preparation for that trip. First, there were no TV’s in Colonial America, so to experience life the way Felicity experienced life, we moved our TV’s into the closets for the summer. This may seem extreme and I was only able to get away with this for a couple of summers, but the benefits were very much worth it.

We visited the Atlanta History Center on sheep shearing day and learned about spinning, dyeing, and weaving wool for warm clothes in preparation for the winter months. Any idea of the number of math facts contained in this process? A bunch. So we bought inexpensive looms and a bag of thick, wool yarn and began weaving. In the summer evenings, with no TV, we burned candles the way Felicity’s family would have done and wove our wool yarn into small blankets, and Lauren read from the American Girl books and a few others that allowed us to peer into the lives of families in Colonial America along with some tragic stories from the American Revolution.

We learned the art of soap and candle making at the primitive cabin next to the Mary Gay House in Decatur, Georgia where the city offered free classes on Wednesday mornings once per month. We washed with the soap and burned the candles we made. We enjoyed making candles so much that we made more candles to give as Christmas gifts later that year. Next: sewing and embroidery. I had a great time with the sewing and embroidery and expected my girls would as well. But they didn’t. And that’s ok because there was so much more to learn about life in Colonial America. And yet, they still have the little embroidered pillows they made that summer.

Math and science… of cooking. We all know cooking from recipes is a great way to bring math to life for our children. Colonial American cooking gave us myriad opportunities to use math facts and learn the science behind early American cooking and food storage. From soda bread, gruel, corn meal muffins, scones, and New Brunswick stew to jam making and high tea. The summer was filled with wonderful meals made by sweet little hands who learned all about adding, subtracting, multiplying fractions, and the properties of yeast, baking soda, sugar and salt while having a lot of fun.

***At the time, we didn’t have a garden. But just imagine what we could have learned if we had added our own vegetable garden to the project. These are just a few of the activities we enjoyed that summer.

The Summer of horses:
When my oldest, Lauren, fell in love with horses around the age of 13, we didn’t have the means to indulge her love with a horse of her own, but I wanted to take the opportunity to build a summer of learning around her new passion. She had been taking riding lessons for several months and was preparing to go to a camp where she would have the opportunity to ride and care for horses. That summer we learned how horses came to America, we studied the expansion of the US to the west and the importance of horses in that expansion. We learned the anatomy of horses, the hard work required to care for a large animal and the confidence and leadership skills that come when you learn how to communicate effectively with a horse. Because of the outdoor experience that often accompanies time with horses, we incorporated camping and survival skills necessary for life away from the city.

That year, we ended the summer with a camping trip to Cumberland Island, one of the Golden Isles off the coast of Georgia. Cumberland is a protected island, and the state allows only a few campers and no vehicles. Because of this, it exists today very much the same way it existed hundreds of years ago. Indians are known to have occupied the island 4000 years ago, so camping there amidst the ancient flora and the fauna is a rare treat. Waking to the sound of a small herd of wild horses trotting down the path or emerging from our tent to the gentleness of a mare and her colt in the early morning provided my girls with a respect for the untamed beauty of the wild horse and the need to protect this and other of these few, precious environments. From the tamed, working horse of the American West, to the wild horses of Cumberland Island, my girls quenched their thirst for horse ownership and acquired an appreciation for these great animals, their heritage and how they became such an important part of Native American culture and American History at large.

The Greek Classics:
The next summer found us learning Greek mythology, history, art and architecture. With visits to Emory University’s Greek row to learn the Greek alphabet, and using clay and simple tools to sculpt the three basic Greek columns as well as visiting churches and stately buildings in downtown Atlanta and naming the elements of classic Greek architecture, this summer was challenging to our imaginations and provided an awareness and appreciation of Greek life that is still present in our 21st century world. My girls learned of mythological creatures, heroes and heroines that provided examples of ethics and morality consistent with our family values. The girls and I read story after story together and then chose just the right one to turn into a family performance that week. We concluded that summer with a trip to visit the Parthenon in Nashville. My husband’s college reunion was scheduled for the end of summer in Nashville and the Parthenon at Centennial Park is a life-sized replica of the Parthenon in Greece. I thought it was a great way to apply our summer learning fun to a family vacation and have the girls serve as docents to teach their dad what they had learned about architecture and the great warrior goddess, Athena.

The relevance and importance of our Project Based Learning summers did not end with the Big Family Vacation just before the start of the school year. Throughout the following years, and even still today, I often see it in small comments related to school, community, friends and family. When I was working in Cyprus (the birthplace of Aphrodite, by the way) a couple of years ago, the girls came to visit me for spring break. I didn’t have to convince them to go to the beach where she sprang from the sea or to the springs where she bathed, these were items on their agenda – although they had not yet studied Greek mythology in school. As we drove through the streets populated with signs in Greek and English, I relied heavily on the English signs for directions while my girls fluently read the Greek signs. I asked them when they learned Greek. Lauren, my oldest replied, “That summer we learned the Greek alphabet from the fraternity houses at Emory. It’s super easy.”

Retaining the Greek alphabet and using it to find our way around a foreign country was one advantage, but understanding cultures and social complexities was something I really didn’t expect from our Summer’s of Learning Fun until Audrey brought it all full circle for me during that week. Ancient history and 21st century life are ever-present in the Mediterranean and understanding the complexities of two opposing cultures living side by side are concepts with which most Americans continue to struggle. In Cyprus, half the island is composed of Greek or Cypriot Christians and the other half of Turkish Muslims. They have found ways to work together, govern together and co-exist that can serve as a model for the rest of the world. We were exploring the island during the time of the Iraq war so we often engaged in conversations about politics and government with our hosts. My youngest said it best when, during one of these discussions, she commented, “They get along because they live on Aphrodites’ Island; the island of Love.” And, perhaps, it is true.

“Doesn’t Every Child Deserve a Memorable Summer” National Summer Learning Association

Project Based Learning:
Tips for Using Project-Based Learning to Teach Math Standards
By Andrew Miller

The Parthenon, Nashville, TN

Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The Wild Horses of Cumberland Island

Author's Bio: 

Kellie Huff is the CEO of Aurora Strategies, Inc. a premier provider of Neurocognitive Learning and the Founder of The Aurora Day School, an accredited school for students with learning challenges K-12. The Aurora Day School has two locations in Metro-Atlanta, Georgia.
Ms. Huff has been a practicing Speech Pathologist, Educator, Author and Speaker for 25 years.