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Encourage writing this summer

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A great way to encourage children to write in the summer is to allow them to plan a meal and take them to one of Los Altos’ farmers’ markets for ingredients.

Parents often ask me what their children can do over the summer for enrichment. I am a firm believer in the importance of summer vacation and unstructured and creative play for students of all ages.

Unless it’s required, I rarely recommend any sort of summer school. However, the technology boom has made written communication and expression more important than ever before. Yet, most students aren’t adequately developing their writing skills. It’s easier to text “Whz up?” than to write an entire sentence, and instant messaging frequently uses contractions (LOL, OMG, FWIW) that undermine the importance of proper grammar and sentence structure.

When I speak with high school teachers, college professors and school administrators, I often hear that many students enter high school and college with abysmal writing skills.

In our office, we have long used the summer months to invent fun and creative ways to encourage students to develop their writing and critical-thinking skills. At home, parents can easily do the same, and solutions need not be expensive or overwhelming. A few of my favorite ideas are listed below. Each idea can easily be adapted for different age groups.

1. Vocabulary building. When my sister and I were elementary school students, our father had a contest where we learned five to 10 words a day during the summer. We would learn the words, understand their meanings and use each in a sentence. Notably, we both became writers as adults.

Many parents groan that their children would never go for something like this, but it is all about approach. This can easily be made into a game, and I see young people in our office become excited and enthralled in our various vocabulary-building exercises. There are online Apps that produce easy flashcards. Siblings can quiz each other during car rides and airport layovers. A weekly family Scrabble game encourages usage and creativity.

2. Persuasive writing. Are your children experts at persuading you to purchase the latest toy/book/clothing article/technological gadget/video game? Next time they try to convince you of the latest and greatest, have them write a persuasive essay listing three to five reasons why the purchase is so important, including suggestions as to how they will fund the purchase and alternatives if the initial request is not possible. Side benefit: This writing exercise may cut down on the amount of requests.

3. Travel assistance. If you plan to hit the road this summer, your children can actively participate in the organizing. Give them a set budget to plan a day or half-day excursion at your destination.

Have them conduct the research, make the necessary plans and write a thoughtful itinerary. It’s remarkable how much more engaged they will become if part of the trip is theirs. And the family may enjoy doing something wonderfully unplanned like going on dirt-biking excursion in Maui, a walking tour of bakeries in the 5th arrondissement of Paris or a gelato excursion around Florence (yum!).

4. Farmers’ market cooking. When you are home during the summer, visit the local farmers’ market with your children and encourage them to chose produce that is fresh, plentiful and interesting. After returning home, they can go online or use cookbooks to find new recipes using the fresh purchases. After adapting the recipe as appropriate, they can document what worked and what didn’t (flattened soufflé?). At the end of the summer, they can use online book-creating tools to self-publish their own cookbook or recipe calendar as a holiday gift for family and friends.

5. Family storytelling. This project can be done on the computer or in a written composition book. I prefer a composition book so that children practice their handwriting, but whatever works best is fine. At the top of each page, enter three to five random words. Each day, someone in the family is responsible for writing anywhere from a paragraph to a page using the words and elaborating upon the previous entry. You can collaborate on characters and basic plot before you begin, or let imaginations run wild. It’s most fun and productive if everyone gets involved. Again, the authors can illustrate and self-publish the book at the end of summer.

There are many ways to promote unstructured play and learning this summer. The key is to get outdoors, be creative and realize that there are no wrong answers.

Ana Homayoun is the founder and director of Los Altos-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting and the author of “That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life” (Penguin, 2010).

For more information, visit www.greenivyed.com.

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