Summer is supposed to be a time for fun and relaxation, but too much time away from school has been shown to lead to significant learning loss: a phenomenon often referred to as the “summer slide.”
A 2020 study published by the American Educational Research Association found that over half of students in the U.S. lost roughly 40 percent of their learning progress over the course of the summer. To make sure kids retain the knowledge they gain during the school year, it’s important to keep them engaged with topics like history, science, and math even when they aren’t in school.
That leaves parents to walk a careful line between keeping their kids learning and making sure they can enjoy their time off.
The good news is that learning doesn’t have to mean staying cooped up inside with books or math equations. In fact, those long summer days provide a prime opportunity to explore some non-traditional methods of learning that can inspire kids to engage with the world around them.
Summertime “field trips” are a great way to incorporate education into the fun activities kids look forward to when they picture their summer break. Northern Virginia is an area teeming with historic buildings, world-class museums, and vibrant wildlife that can pique the interest of any young scholar. We provide some of the best of the many options, ahead.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
At the Udvar-Hazy Center, the Smithsonian’s Chantilly branch of the National Air and Space Museum, the sky is the limit. The museum is full of aircraft and artifacts that demonstrate the history of aviation and space exploration.
Wander through the hangar to see planes, planes, and more planes. There are planes from pre-1920, when aviation was just getting off the ground; World War I and Vietnam warplanes; and sleek, modern commercial models like today’s. Plus, learn more about humankind’s forays into space with artifacts that include a space suit, satellites, and the Space Shuttle Discovery.
On select days, visitors have the chance to turn their eyes to the sky in real time. With the help of telescopes and knowledgeable staff, you can try your hand at either sungazing or stargazing. Sungazing sessions are held on the second Saturday of each month. Check the events calendar on the museum’s website for up-to-date information on stargazing sessions and other special events.
To provide a structure similar to classroom teaching for younger kids, the center hosts story times every Tuesday and Thursday with readings of science-focused books. The readings are often accompanied by an activity to match the theme. June will feature Sally’s Great Ballooning Adventure by Stephen Huneck; visitors will be able to create a balloon craft to send up in the center’s wind tunnel. 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly
Children’s Science Center Lab
Science can be fun! And silly, and colorful, and sometimes messy. The Children’s Science Center Lab, located in Fair Oaks Mall, provides an organized space for kids to explore science in all its playful forms.
The lab has several “experience stations” from which to choose. Stop by the Tinker Shop to tackle open-ended engineering challenges, or check out the Bio Zone to learn about amphibians and insects up close.
The center offers themed camps through the summer months. This year, single-day science camps include a “gross science” lab, where kids are encouraged to “explore the oozing, ugly, rotten side of science” with topics that include insects, slime, and germs.
Not so into the gross stuff? There’s an art lab on July 7 that explores the intersection of art and science with activities like pH painting and painting with pendulums. 11948 Fair Oaks Mall, Fairfax
Arlington Nature Centers
A summer-break field trip is the perfect opportunity to spend some time outside and get your hands dirty. Northern Virginia is home to plenty of great parks and nature centers, which are perfect for learning about nature and the outdoors.
And while you can learn a lot just by walking through a park and observing the wildlife, nature centers often provide opportunities for visitors of all ages to learn about flora and fauna from professional naturalists.
In Arlington County, nature centers host an array of fun, educational programs year-round. For example, kids aged 8 to 12 can join in a Creek Trek to explore the fossils, minnows, and more that live in Long Branch Creek; teenagers ages 13 to 18 can take skills courses in archery and navigation; and visitors of all ages can attend the Firefly Festival at Fort C.F. Smith Park.
Visitors can view the full catalog of events and register on the Nature & History Programs page of Arlington County’s website. Registration for summer programs opens on May 18 for Arlington County residents and May 24 for out-of-county participants. Multiple locations, arlingtonva.us
Old Town Alexandria Self-Guided Tours
Do your little ones want to feel like they’re the leaders of their own adventures? Try an educational walking tour to learn about some of the significant historic sites that are nestled right in one of NoVA’s oldest neighborhoods.
The City of Alexandria has self-guided walking tours set up throughout the city, which provide the flexibility to set off on your educational trip any day, any time — without worrying about booking tickets or reserving time slots.
For a quick, engaging tour that’s fit for kids, try the Historic Alexandria Scavenger Hunt. It’s a 20-block walk that loops through the center of Old Town and encompasses 19 stops. Print out the brochure from the city’s website, follow the map, and learn fun facts about every stop, plus answer trivia questions along the way. Tour-goers will start at the Alexandria Visitor Center and make their way to historic sites, such as the Carlyle House, City Hall, The Lyceum, and Waterfront Park. If you take the tour during operating hours, end your journey at the Torpedo Factory with a stop in the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, where you can learn even more about the city’s history. Then, come back to the visitor center to collect a prize for completing the hunt. Alexandria Visitor Center: 221 King St., Alexandria
Feature photo courtesy K. Summerer/Visit Alexandria
This story originally ran in our May issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to Northern Virginia Magazine.