How to Blend Learning with Play for a Kid-friendly Summer

summer learningWith summer fast approaching all over the Northern Hemisphere, kids are eager for time away from teachers, textbooks, and To-do lists. In Ireland, Italy, Greece, Russia, and other Eurasian nations, summer vacation lasts about three months. In Australia, Britain, The Netherlands, Canada, and Germany, it’s six to eight weeks. American students get roughly ten weeks.

While kids celebrate, teachers and parents worry students will lose their academic edge. It turns out that concern is valid. Statistics say over the summer, kids lose over two months of math skills, two months of reading skills, and one month of overall learning. Efforts to prevent summer learning loss propel often-unpopular year-round school initiatives and all manner of summer school and summer camps that focus on cerebral topics.

Worry no more. The cure is much simpler: Disguise learning as play. Using the websites below, kids will think they’re playing games while actually engaging in the leading [mostly] free games and simulations in the education field.

A note: some must be downloaded and a few purchased, so the link provided might take you to a website that provides access rather than play.


Here are two gamified options that can be tweaked to address any topic:

  • Digital Breakouts — Players of all ages use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles that ultimately enable them to achieve a goal. Digital Breakouts are an update to the traditional and popular webquests that have students explore the web as they gather content in a particular field — history, math, literacy, or others. A great collection of free, ready-made digital breakouts can be found over at Tom’s Digital Breakouts. These don’t have to be played online; for a fee, students can play unplugged.
  • Flash cards — apps like the free Brainscape provide topical flash cards kids can memorize in between the rest of summer stuff. You might even provide badges for the lists students finish.

Financial Literacy

Summer is a great time to learn topics that require dedicated periods of time — like a financial literacy program. These are important for high schoolers, but often not required for graduation. That means many students transition to that almost-adult point in their life where they need to understand credit cards, bank accounts, paying bills, and other financial concepts but have no real knowledge of how these work.

Here are a few sites that gamify financial literacy topics and can be completed over the summer:

  • Banzai – online free comprehensive financial literacy program
  • You are here – kids learn to be smart consumers


If you ask successful business leaders what subject is most important to their success, most will not say math or science. Surprisingly, it’s history, where future leaders vicariously experience how others survived difficult situations and solved problems they had never before seen. Yet, history classes are often considered boring and not a serious subject like math and science. As if to prove their point, many history classes are dry and fact-oriented with rote drills about dates and events. Even students who thought they liked history might change their minds.

If your students are on the cusp of disliking this subject, change their mind this summer with these sites:

  • Civilization –– a strategy game in which you attempt to build an empire to stand the test of time. Includes games on Macedonia, how to prepare for war, how to generate Faith, Persia, the inception of Australia, and more; fee required.
  • History Mystery – solve mysteries using history clues.
  • History Simulations – interactive and engaging history games and simulations; fee and free.


Somewhere between arithmetic and algebra, students lose interest in math. For many, they find it difficult, confusing, and thus over their intellectual heads. If your students are struggling with this, try one of these gamified approaches to learning math:

  • Dimension M – math simulations for middle school and high school.
  • Jasper Woodbury — 12 adventures that focus on mathematical problem-solving; fee required.
  • Manga High — math content that adapts to particular student needs.
  • Origo Math — rigorous problem-solving activities and interactive digital games that enhance K-6 student thinking and reasoning skills.
  • ProdigyGame — game-based approach to teaching hundreds of math concepts for grades 1-8.

Problem Solving

Every day, kids are asked to solve problems. When young, they follow parent’s or peer’s advice, but by a certain age, they realize — if they’re going to lead successful lives — they must know how to evaluate and solve problems themselves. Here are three sites that help them to develop those skills:

  • The Crossing – the character tries varied ways to cross a gorge. This is a 2-minute video.
  • Quandary – an ethics problem-solving game from MIT.
  • Virtual Escape Room – use the clues available to escape the room.


Let children build on class initiatives for programming by picking an option that works best for their learning style rather than the group. Let them spend as much of their summer vacation on it as they’d like. It won’t feel like learning, but will improve their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Good choices include:

  1. Hopscotch (an app)
  2. Kodable (an app)
  3. Lego Fix the Factory (an app)
  5. the Foos (an app)


The importance of reading to education success is well-documented. Kids who read statistically excel in their academic journey; those who don’t, don’t. Being good at reading is not just about getting through a book, but remembering what you read, reporting on it to others, and transferring this information to other parts of life. Helping students enjoy this “close reading” requires a different set of tools than grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.

Summer is the perfect time to reinforce authentic and granular reading skills in ways that students will enjoy. Try one (or all) of these three tools:

  • Book reports — have kids prepare unconventional book reports on their summer reading using sites that share their review via video, audio, or a drawing. Collect these into a digital library that kids can access online, see what friends are reading over the summer, and find books that appeal to them. Over time, this will become a valuable summer resource to supplement student reading.
  • Book trailers — this is similar to the book report but more exciting! Just like the trailers students watch to help them pick a movie, book trailers summarize the book and share a hook without giving away the story. These can be created in a variety of programs such as Voki and Tellagami.
  • Sports Network 2 – practice reading skills in a simulated sports network setting.


Science is probably the most under-appreciated fascinating subject taught in schools. Why? Understanding too often comes down to complicated concepts that are more theory than practical making kids wonder why they should learn something they’ll never use. Science is quickly conflated with work and they move on.

If you have kids on the cusp of loving and hating science, remind them why they love it with one of these two sites:


So much of learning today is about technology. Kids think they know tech because they do stuff on Mom’s smartphone she doesn’t understand, but the bar is higher than that. When faced with the technology required for test-taking and applications, students can be confused and discouraged when they shouldn’t be — because it’s not difficult.

Take the stress out of technology by letting students use typical tech tools (like Excel or Google Sheets) to play a game. Here are several examples:

Test Prep

By the time students reach high school, if they’re on a college-bound track, preparation for the SATs and ACTs becomes critical, but the thought of opening a Kaplan practice test book with questions they barely understand might derail their good intentions. Instead, give kids fun options that will still leave them feeling better prepared for a test that will decide their future.

Here are a few:


A great option for summer writing is digital storytelling where kids tell their stories without the worry and frustration associated with typing, grammar, spelling, and language rules. Instead, they focus on communicating with creativity. They might even consider scrapbooking about their summer vacation, journaling about their experience in a camp, or joining friends on a collaborative forum like Google Draw or Padlet to tell a group story.

Good options include:

  • Draw a Stickman – draw a stickman to represent the main character of a story you’d like to write. Then, this site turns it into a choose-your-own-adventure story, asking you to add detail.
  • Google Storybuilder — collaboratively write a story to share with friends and family.
  • Puppet Pals – create simple animated stories with puppets in this iOS app.
  • Telestory – tell your story with this free augmented reality video storytelling app.
  • Toontastic – tell your story with comics.

At the core of each of the twenty-five plus websites above is the belief that learning is fun. Let your students (and kids) live it this summer.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

Author: Jacqui
Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K-12 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. She is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, contributor to NEA Today, and author of the tech thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and Twenty-four Days. You can find her resources at Structured Learning.

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