The summer brain drain is real. According to research, students lose about 2+ months of learned math skills and reading ability (even more in lower income households), which is why recreational reading is so important over the summer. What kids do—or don’t do—during the summer can really impact where they land come September.

While summer should primarily be a respite from the grind, this time off from school is also a great opportunity for exploration, self-directed study, and deep dives into whatever piques kids’ curiosity. Here are some ideas to inspire your kids to learn while having fun this summer:


Young children, by nature, are little obsessives who latch on to interests. Go with it. Would-be paleontologists can pour over dinothemed books, watch Jurassic-themed media (if they haven’t seen the TV show Dinosaurs, it’s a must), and visit the 44,000-square-foot Jean and Rick Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University. Young astronomers can explore NASA Kids Club online, sign up for space camp (Bergen County’s Buehler Challenger & Science Center is particularly out of this world) or spy the skies at one of NJ’s many planetariums and observatories. Nurturing a nature lover? There are dozens of gorgeous public gardens, arboretums and hiking trails to explore local flora and fauna, and many offer drop-in exhibits, classes and educational experiences.


Pair binge reading with a day camp based on their favorite series. Budding demigods can immerse themselves in Greek mythology at the Percy Jackson-inspired Camp Half-Blood (Maplewood, Monroe Twp.) or Camp Mythik: Daring Girls, which launches its first NJ locale this summer in West Orange. Kids can revel in the enchanting world of Harry Potter at Magic for Muggles (Montclair) or the Old Stone Academy for Witchcraft and Wizardry (Franklin Lakes). Or, they can meld the page with a performance at any of the Shakespeare Theatre’s summer programs held at Drew University for kids age 6-18.


Encouraging your child to work on foundational skills (check out Khan Academy and online learning platform ALEKS) will pay off in terms of skill retention and less stress playing catchup. If your child’s school offers a summer math program, consider it a chance to continue learning or get ahead before September. A weekly tutoring session reviewing the past year’s principles could also prevent learning loss and put them on more solid ground come fall.


Nothing boosts literacy skills more than simply reading. Reading anything in any amount (even comic books and graphic novels) will boost language acquisition, comprehension, grammar and spelling ability. Your child’s school likely put together a summer list of age-appropriate titles and many local libraries host summer book clubs to add a bit of healthy competition.


Don’t just stop learning loss—boost it by sending your kids to any number of STEM-themed summer camps and programs. Ideal for older kids and young teens, there are opportunities in NJ devoted to coding, game creation, app building, 3D engineering, LEGO design, Minecraft modding, and more. Build fight-worthy robots at ID Tech’s Battlebots program (hosted at Princeton, Fairleigh Dickinson and Montclair State universities); develop AR/VR at the Innovation Foundry in Summit; or explore medical science at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.


Journaling gives kids a safe outlet for self-expression, while honing writing skills. Books with prompts are perfect for “What should I write about?” kids, while all-ages apps like Diarium and Day One (iOS only) exist for digital diehards. Adolescents who’ve caught the writing bug can indulge their passion in teen writing intensives at the Writer’s Circle at Drew University in Madison or attend a Writopia Labs session in NYC. Too far? NJ parents within an hour of the city can host their own workshop: Writopia provides the instructor; parents supply the space and at least five students.


According to studies, doing good can actually result in good grades—not to mention better mental health, learning new skills, boosted confidence and a sense of purpose. lets you search for in-person and virtual opportunities by age, cause, distance and more. There’s no need to join an “official” philanthropic project to give back, though. Kids can collect food for animal shelters or local pantries or fundraise (think bake sales and lemonade stands) for any charity they choose. They can help an elderly neighbor with their yard or pick up garbage at the park. Teens can see the world and make it a better place by signing on with Global Leadership Adventures, Rustic Pathways, or any number of philanthropy-focused travel programs.


Nothing beats real-world learning, and a summer job may be the best teacher of all for teens. Skills they’ll acquire: responsibility, time management, maturity, social acumen, and how hard one needs to work to buy another Summer Fridays lip balm at Sephora. In NJ, adolescents ages 14-18 need an annual work permit once they’ve scored a summer gig. A great place to start is your town’s recreation department which perennially needs to staff up for summer. Counselors are always in demand. And teens 15+ trained as a lifeguard will never go wanting for summer work. Older teens can find work anywhere from restaurants to retail, especially if they’re willing to work during the school year. If no jobs are forthcoming, there is always a need for kids willing to walk dogs, feed cats, water plants and babysit—just put the word out to your network.

—Jennifer Kantor is an education, parenting and lifestyle writer and a Maplewood mom of two.