Tips to Get Your Kid’s Brain Back into School Mode (Painlessly)

Photo: Kristin Van de Water

We emerged from remote learning this past spring burnt out and ready for a break. A break from sketchy wi-fi. A break from nagging about expectations. A break from debating whether to continue our wildflower exploration or sign back online to hear a teacher’s read-aloud. A break from morning meetings with my four kids to schedule the day. Enter lovely, lazy summer days of unplanned, uninterrupted play.

Well, that lasted for about a week. Then, my mind wandered into that downward spiral of worry around the summer slide, only amplified by the inadequate nature of emergency remote learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Since my children missed out on classroom time this spring, even a slight summer slide would leave them super behind where they should be, come September.

So, while I knew we all needed a break, I didn’t want us to just rot away all summer long. I figured I’d try to sneak in some academics without the kids realizing my scheme. But even that seemed too labor-intensive for a mom burnt-out from juggling remote learning and supplemental home-schooling. What I needed was kid buy-in.

About a week after school ended, I pulled the easel into the kitchen after breakfast. I explained my goal for our family: keep our brains and bodies active and healthy during summer break. I asked the kids to share out some of their hopes for the summer. We brainstormed a list of activities we wanted to do daily plus a bucket list of ideas to try at some point.

As we jotted down ideas, a few categories emerged that helped us visualize what ideal summer days might look like. We decided that each day, we should carve out space for reading, numbers, writing, creativity, quiet, and the outdoors. While my children gravitate toward different activities within these categories, we all found joy in something from each bucket.

Here’s a menu of ideas we draw from to exercise our minds and bodies in a way that seems less like school assignments and more like a celebration of joyful summer days.


  • Build a reading nest
  • Take advantage of library grab & go programs to check out books
  • Read a Mo Willems book then watch Lunch Doodles
  • Listen to books read aloud online (Storyline Online, BookFlix, Epic)
  • Play with letter magnets


  • Build a domino tower then count how many dots you used
  • Play Crazy Eights
  • Tally scores after a game of miniature golf
  • Solve a sudoku
  • Quiz your action figures on addition and subtraction facts
  • Complete a measuring tape scavenger hunt—list items around the house or neighborhood and create a chart of their lengths
  • Play with measuring cups, containers, and water


  • Jot down a shopping list or recipe with your own words and pictures
  • Write with finger paint, paintbrushes, chalk, or squirt guns on the sidewalk
  • Keep a summer journal
  • Tell a tall tale
  • Trace letters to uncover a secret message
  • Connect the dots in an activity book


  • Tinker with recycling bin items
  • Create a block city with a marble run intertwined
  • Bake mini quiches with various mix-ins
  • Make sock or popsicle stick puppets and put on a show
  • Design a suncatcher or windchime
  • Set up a workshop and display your creations in your “art gallery”

Quiet Time

  • Complete a jigsaw puzzle
  • Take a nap
  • Watch a movie
  • Call a friend
  • Doodle to music

Outdoor Time

  • Learn to swim, tread water, and do somersaults in the pool
  • Bike or scoot around an imaginary town
  • Clean up litter in your neighborhood
  • Beat your time on an obstacle course
  • Wrap tape around your wrist sticky side out and stick on bits of nature that you find on a walk

Admittingly, we don’t all cover each category daily. Some days are more lopsided than others, with hours of blissful reading time in a fort but only a few seconds counting grapes on a lunch plate for numbers time. But that’s ok. Because the next day they will rediscover their sudoku book and squish reading into 10 minutes before bed. It all balances out eventually.

So, if you’re looking for a little structure for these final weeks of summer to gently gear back up for school next month, consider which categories have slipped through the cracks. With everything our teachers are doing to prepare for our kids’ return to school—whether in person or remote—the least we parents can do is send our kids back with brains and bodies that are both refreshed and primed to learn.