Learning beyond the classroom: Tips for parents to re-engage their kids this summer

CBC News asked five experts to share different activities that can help keep kids sharp this summer after another challenging school year.

Experts from across Canada offer advice after another challenging school year for children

Children play at a child-care centre at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax on July 13. Many children had another challenging school year because of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

After another challenging school year for children across the country, with in-person education disrupted in many places for an often-disengaging virtual experience, summertime can be an opportunity for kids to mentally and physically recharge — but that doesn't necessarily mean they need to stop learning.

CBC News spoke with several experts who gave tips on how to re-engage kids this summer and reimagine learning beyond the classroom.

Play cognitive games to build big brains

Dr. Robbin Gibb, an associate professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, is the founder of Building Brains Together, an organization that uses games to improve mental skills in preschool-aged children.

The program's core curriculum features 10 games, each with different benefits for building a child's cognitive capacity. There is also an Indigenous game curriculum. The program was piloted in various school divisions in Lethbridge.

One example is Red Light, Green Light, a game where players move at the mention of a "green light" and must suddenly stop at the mention of a "red light." The activity builds a child's working memory as well as their inhibitory skills.

Gibb said she encourages parents and educators to run the games so there is ultimately a loser.

"Although it seems cruel to do that to a three-year-old ... they can learn to accept that loss and it's not a tragedy," Gibb said. "So it's developing their emotional regulation and their emotional understanding of what's an acceptable way to manage the loss."

Teach social skills through playtime

A little girl reads Robert Munsch's The Paper Bag Princess. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Online school forced many children to miss out on spending valuable time with their peers, which can take a toll on a child's social development and mental health, said Jessica Gottlieb, a Montreal-based clinical social worker.

"Children learn a vast array of social skills during play opportunities," she said.

She described social skills as behaviours that promote positive interaction with others. Empathy, conflict resolution and problem-solving are just a few of the behaviours that fall under this umbrella. 

Gottlieb suggests a few ways to help develop those skills.

"I encourage, for example, empathy through reading and books," she said. "You can get inside the characters' minds and ask, 'How does so and so ... feel in this story?'"

Parents can think of a "social story" with their child, in which a character is faced with a problem that the child can relate to and must then overcome. 

Kids lose out on many of the physical cues of a conversation with so many of their interactions occurring virtually, Gottlieb said. Exposure to those signals is especially crucial for children.

"What often is very helpful is if we include a social aspect to a physical activity," she said, such as a trip to a park with a friend, playing at a splash pad, or participating in a sport. 

"That's what's excellent for mental health and socialization."

Find mathematical patterns in nature

For Susan Gerofsky, an associate professor of mathematics education and environmental education at the University of British Columbia, an "outdoor classroom" isn't just rows of desks and a blackboard moved outside. It means teaching and learning in a world of other living beings, outside of a human-controlled environment.

Parents who want to have their children engage with nature in a cerebral way have a lot to work with just in their own backyards or nearby parks. It starts with simple observations, Gerofsky said.

"Just sort of adopt a tree or a bit of a garden or a stream, and just notice what's happening there with all your senses," she said. Focus on smells, how trees respond to a gust of wind, or how bees swarm together.

Soon, you can start thinking in a more complex way, she said: How can you measure the height of a tree with just your body? Is the tree as long as its shadow? If a stick's shadow is two-thirds of its length, would the same reasoning apply to a large cedar tree?

Being outdoors is incredibly beneficial for a child's physical development because it gives them room to explore space, balance and speed without being encumbered by furniture or walls, Gerofsky said.

"There's also a sense of empathy that's very important," she said, as children will feel akin to nature the more time they spend outdoors. "It's a step ... toward the kind of ecological sensibility where we don't think about the world as just a bunch of resources."

Dance to encourage self-expression

Sofia Sanchez, a Vancouver-based expressive arts therapist, says dance is a great way to help a child tap into their creative side. (Madeline Kotzer/CBC News)

Sofia Sanchez, a Vancouver-based expressive arts therapist who works with children of all ages, says creative activities such as dance give kids new ways to express themselves.

"Dance can be a very smart way of preparing kids to go back in the classrooms later on," Sanchez said. It can help younger kids learn to control their movements, and give them the confidence and motivation they need to partake in other physical activities, such as team sports.

"In dance, we focus a lot on stretching, and breathing through stretches, and that can become a tool that they can use in any setting," she said.

Sanchez suggested starting with some simple exercises: pulling in your breath and then exhaling through the mouth, or imagining that you're filling up a balloon with your lungs.

Then parents can encourage their kids to try non-guided dance. It's not about following a certain structure, but rather giving them an opportunity to get creative with their movements. 

"We're all artists, we're all dancers," Sanchez said. "And those are very important tools that often get overlooked."

Use music to help regulate emotions

Sarah Van Peteghen, a certified music therapist at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, says music can be used as an educational tool, a mood-adjuster, and as an important conversation-starter between parent and child. (klyuchnikovart/Shutterstock)

Children learn all kinds of skills through music training and education because it engages all parts of the brain, said Sarah Van Peteghen, a certified music therapist at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary.

"It supports focus, regulates emotions, reduces stress [and] increases self-confidence and self-esteem," Van Peteghen told CBC News in an email. "It also improves memory and learning."

Different kinds of music will have different effects on the brain — sad songs can be a release for the body and mind, while "relaxing" music (a descriptor that is subjective to everyone) reduces the body's production of cortisol, a stress hormone, she said.

For parents who want to use music as a tool to engage their children in a fun, educational way, Van Peteghen suggests a few options. They can initiate a short dance party to change the mood, or use music as a transitional tool between parts of the day. For older kids, take turns choosing songs that speak to a particular theme, word or mood.

"Showing interest (but not judgment) in your child's music can open up conversations around other topics that might be too sensitive to address directly," Van Peteghen said.


Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master's degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at