Winter is coming

Ah, the delights of spending the summer with your kids! The only thing better is the barely suppressed joy as you drop them off on the first day of school. Marketers love the first day of school.

Ah, the delights of spending the summer with your kids!

The only thing better is the barely suppressed joy as you drop them off on the first day of school.

Marketers love the first day of school. It fills the retail black hole between Father’s Day and Halloween. Millions of potential clients have been given shopping lists and sent to the stores by expectant teachers, and everyone needs new clothes, bags and accessories to look good in the hallways.

There are tips on almost everything. Reader’s Digest has 10 safety tips, including not bending down in front of the bus to tie shoes. Staples has a “Back-to-School Hardware Selectifier” so you know what gadgets to buy. Healthychildren.org recommends parents choose a backpack with wide, padded shoulder straps and that junior be instructed to use both straps. Seventeen Magazine offers tips on back to school hairstyles (one of this year’s suggestions is how to “create a flirty, messy bun!”).

The only thing that doesn’t seem to get much attention is education itself.

There are lots of studies suggesting that over the long summer break our children forget quite a few of the things they learned during the previous school year. Plus there’s the delicate question of what the June report card looked like, although – as the old joke goes – if your marks are bad you have less to forget over the summer.

President Obama has called for the summer break to be shorter. He told American parents that a lot of learning is lost over a long vacation and that the impact is “especially severe for poor kids” who don’t have access to all the summer camps and activities other kids do.

But don’t expect our summer tradition to change any time soon. School boards that have tried to tinker with summer have usually been overwhelmed by opposition from teachers’ unions and parents.

Meanwhile, some parents have big plans to keep up the learning over the summer break. But usually this ends up being a summer version of an overly ambitious New Year’s resolution. I’m probably safe to assume that, although your kids may have been living a lifestyle inspired by Huck Finn, they probably didn’t read that childhood classic over the summer.

One of my children was given a summer reading list, a custom that seems to be going the way of the thank-you note. This list had 25 books, a variety of fiction and non-fiction, classic and modern. You had to read three over the summer, hardly an onerous task. It even prompted me to read a few of the selections, and my teenager and I had some great conversations about one of John Le Carre’s classic spy novels and Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

But what to do with our young Huck (and Huckette) Finns now that summer is over? The easy part, although it may not seem like it, is to get them back into shoes and a daily schedule. The harder part is on the learning side. Many parents have a feeling that their children could use some extra English and math, on top of what they learn at school.

Supplemental math support is relatively easier to find than English. Kumon on Main Street is a mainstay for many Whitehorse high school and elementary parents, with its well-defined routine and focus on the fundamentals. The kids do small chunks of daily homework, and then visit Kumon twice a week. By structuring the schedule like a sports program, Kumon fits easily into the school-year routine.

The free Khan Academy website is also great. Bill Gates liked it so much he signed up his 11-year-old son Rory and the two of them dived into videos and lessons from algebra to trigonometry. Gates went on to rave about the non-profit website at the Aspen Ideas Festival and fund its expansion. A key part of the Khan method is to break math up into digestible chunks and link them with intuitive web videos. Kids earn points and recognition, similar to video games, and parents can keep track behind the scenes on progress.

Kumon has an English program but, other than that, finding support in English is harder. There are tutors, but they are expensive and hard to find. But there is one easy thing to do: encourage your kids to read more.

The National Endowment for the Arts in Washington did a study a couple of years ago that showed that less than one-third of American 13-year-olds are daily readers, a figure that was down 14 per cent from 20 years ago. Reading scores dropped over the period for nearly all age groups, including adults. At the same time, around two-thirds of employers considered reading comprehension “very important” and 38 per cent of employers considered most high school graduates “deficient” in reading.

The trends are probably not that different in Canada, unfortunately.

A family reading list can be a fun and easy way to encourage your youngsters to read more. The best way to do it is to start from a long list, and then have each family member pick a few. Try to make sure the selections overlap so that you have some shared books to chat about. Some friends just took some time off with their kids and did a lot of reading, sharing many of the same books and discovering a shared taste for Jack Reacher thrillers.

Include some fiction and non-fiction suitable to the ages in the family. Choose some classics and some modern authors. It doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be, all about reading War and Peace or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. On the fiction side, there are lots of popular modern books that are hits for readers of various ages, and enjoyable by adults too. Think about Harry Potter, the Hunger Games trilogy, or Game of Thrones.

A teenage friend and an old pal both recommended the latter series to me. It is the basis of the hit HBO series, and is a ripping read, but you might want to read it yourself first to see if you are comfortable with all the swords, sex and slaying. The books you remember from your youth are still great reads, from The Hobbit to Jack London. Look for books that have a varied vocabulary and rich themes to discuss.

On the non-fiction side, there are lots of engaging new books on various topics. Examples include Michael Pollen on food, Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating books or Anthony Beevor on the Second World War.

Once the list is agreed, all you have to do is get the books and set aside some time each week to read. Winter is coming, a phrase Game of Thrones readers will recognize, and you’ll have lots of time.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.