Simple Steps to Keep Students’ Minds Active During Winter Break

The Juice's Guide to Mitigating Learning Loss During School Breaks.

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Winter break is right around the corner, providing teachers, parents, and students with a respite from quite the unpredictable semester. While the break gives students the chance to sleep in, indulge in extra screen time, and relax without worrying about upcoming assignments, complete inactivity of the brain can dampen a student’s academic progress. It is important for students to balance their mental development with their mental (and physical) health.

As teachers and parents, let’s encourage our students to keep learning this winter break. Keeping students’ minds active will help prevent backsliding in their academic progress.

Multiple studies have shown that learning loss can occur during breaks from school. Most research regarding this topic focuses on the learning loss that happens over the summer break—the “summer slide,” “summer learning loss,” or “summer brain drain”—all refer to this widely recognized and studied phenomena.

The summer slide has been on educators’ radar since Cooper et al.’s seminal study, “The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” published in 1996. Their foundational study found that achievement test scores decrease over the summer vacation, and their findings have been replicated numerous times. Recent studies have found that it is common for students to lose at least one months’ worth of skills in math- and reading-related areas during the two months of summer break, and children from low-income families are disproportionately affected.  

While the Cooper et al. study, and the many others which spawned from it, draw their information from the “summer slide,” the findings can be applied to any extended time away from the classroom. Even a 2-week vacation can set our students’ academic progress back. 

We must pay attention to the “winter slide”.

The Benefits of a Balanced Break

Everyone loves school breaks. It’s an opportunity to rest and recover from a demanding school schedule. Students can play, hang out with friends and family, and relax at home without waking up to an alarm clock or worrying about mountains of homework. Marilyn Benoit, a child psychiatrist, scoffed at the idea of removing breaks from school, simply stating that students “are supposed to take a break from school” in an article by the Washington Post.

We aren’t here to tell you that children shouldn’t take a break from school – because they should! Rest is important. In fact, a study on the effects of vacation found that when there is no recovery time from demanding situations, like school, “health and well-being are jeopardized.” Because of this, breaks that provide time away from the classroom help prevent negative effects from stress and exhaustion. At the same time, breaks help increase one’s life satisfaction and mood. 

However, breaks are often synonymous with “doing nothing,” such as extended screen time, late nights, and sleeping. In the same study, results indicated that vacations centered on “doing nothing” improved well-being during, but not after, the break, with the advantages of the break often fading by the first day back to school.

While breaks are healthy, “doing nothing” is not. Students must keep their minds active to prevent losing all of the academic progress they made during the fall semester. Learning should be habitual. It is up to us to help students understand that learning isn’t synonymous to school, and learning is not only fun, but a lifelong practice. 

What you choose to do on breaks affects your life when you transition back to work or school. Including opportunities to learn in a new setting will make this time away from school meaningful and fun, and show students that any environment is a chance to learn something new. We can teach students how to learn from new surroundings, spending time with peers and family, and having unique experiences.

Ways to Activate Minds Over Winter Break

Breaks from school of any length can contribute to minor academic regression or the loss of learned skills. After spending time away from school, students often struggle transitioning back to a regimented schedule, sitting for long periods of time, and staying focused. Skills that involve factual and procedural knowledge, like vocabulary definitions or an algebraic equation, are more vulnerable to being forgotten in the winter slide; at the same time, it’s harder to forget conceptually-based skills, such as problem solving and reading comprehension. 

Incorporating short, daily activities can help students avoid regression during school breaks and soften the difficult transition back to their school routine.“Learning” can look different during break. For example, it can focus more on thought-provoking conversations, outdoor activities, and connecting with friends and family.

These activities can be as brief as 15 minutes per day, or become an evening of fun with the whole family. Instead of focusing on school content, try some of the following activities to get your students’ minds turning and make the world their classroom.

If you have children in elementary school, you can:

  • Take a trip to the library
  • Go on a free, virtual tour of a museum, like this one.
  • Invite students into the kitchen to help with cooking and recipes. 
  • Listen to a podcast, like “But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids,” or “Book Club for Kids.”
  • Have a family game night. “Uno,” “Chess,” “Connect Four,” and “Checkers” are all great games to keep minds active.

For students in middle or high school, you might:

  • Challenge your student to cook a meal for the whole family.
  • If you are in need of a new house appliance, include your student in the process. Let them compare different prices, features, and functions of competitive brands. This is a great opportunity to practice computer and research skills in real-life scenarios.
  • Have a family game night. “The Settlers of Catan” is a challenging, strategy game that will get everyone’s minds going. “Codenames” is an easy to learn, word association card game that takes creativity and imagination. “Rummikub” is a fast-paced, pattern-recognition game that reinforces STEM skills, such as sequencing and planning. 
  • Watch a movie together and follow with a thoughtful conversation.
  • Read The Juice’s daily newsletter and discuss current events.
  • Listen to a podcast, like “Hidden Brain,” or “Stuff You Should Know.”

The Importance of Staying Mentally Active Over Break

While students experience less learning loss during winter break, it is still important for them to keep their minds active. It is up to us to teach our students that learning is a lifelong activity, and we can build our case by showing students that it is fun, and never limited to a classroom.

This year’s winter break will look different for everyone, and it might be tempting to replace ski vacations and time with friends with more time in front of screens. Instead, let’s take the extra time at home as a unique opportunity to activate our students’ minds in exciting ways. Incorporating daily activities to stimulate students’ minds during break will help launch your students into the new semester with a refreshed and energetic mind, and meaningful memories from the weeks at home.

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