Summer vacation is a time for play, relaxation, and a break from the routine of the school year. This is a time that kids of all ages cherish – yet, as we can attest as educators and mental health stewards, summer is complicated. When regular activities are suspended, it is not unusual for kids to lose motivation, forget things they’ve learned, or lose interest in learning altogether. Working to keep kids’ motivation high begins with understanding just how motivation works – and it’s not as simple as you think.
Short and Long-Term Motivation
Many people believe that, for kids, dangling a reward created a sufficient impetus to motivate positive behaviors. The truth is, motivation is a phenomenon that behavioral scientists have studied for decades to understand why people work hard to achieve goals, where ambition comes from, and how decisions are made. There’s no simple formula to account for how to motivate anyone, much less children. That said, it is interesting to note that motivation is closely tied to learning. When someone is motivated, they are more likely to remember things that they learn. To go a layer deeper, when a person is looking to gain a skill or master a task, they are more likely to build long-term motivation and feel a sense of intrinsic satisfaction. By comparison, working toward a short-term goal or doing one thing well is unlikely to construct long-term motivational habits but will feel good in the moment. Both forms of motivation are interesting and beneficial – after all, mindsets around learning are always helpful, and when it comes to short-term satisfaction, why not find opportunities to celebrate?
The lack of structured learning in the summer months, with neither short-term goals nor long-term projects, is closely connected with a lack of general motivation or a temporary inability to flex the habit of feeling motivated. The result? Many parents know it well - sluggishness, laziness, or disinterest may overcome your child.
Educators place a high value on blending relaxation and playtime with active learning. The Creative Curriculum we use in Maryvale’s Early Education program connects learning with other, less cognitively demanding activities to build a sense of integration and curiosity in young children. In the summer months, when structure dissolves, students risk facing the summer slide where not only does the learning process stop, children lose what they have gained during the school year.
Tips to Motivate Kids During the Summer
Whether a child seems bored or shows signs of academic regression, it’s a good idea to build habits around motivation during the summer months. Here are a few tips for practicing both long-term and short-term motivation during the dog days of summer.
- Set goals. Not only will a simple backlog of goals help bring structure to your child’s summer days, but it will also give you a way to agree on the best projects for them. Where you can, connect their goals to learning or to taking on new responsibilities.
- Make learning fun by introducing new hobbies. Not all learning needs to happen with books – encourage your child to learn a new craft, a sport, something technical, or something practical.
- Build a wishlist. For quick wins and short-term tasks, rewards are the name of the game. Give your child the opportunity to dream a bit – do they want ice cream? A trip to the beach? A chance to see a friend? Something special they love to do? Put all of these on a wishlist and make happy summer experiences culminating in a task or project you want them to do. They’ll feel better about being productive and accomplishing their goals.
- Bring in praise from outside the household. If a child does something impressive, parents and guardians are doing them a service by getting a little bit braggy with friends, neighbors, and family members. As long as the praise is authentic and not embarrassing, hearing positive reinforcement from more people than parents normalizes good behavior and indicates the social value connected to accomplishing a learning goal or project.
- Show kids what they’re working toward. By seeing and understanding the end game, you can help your child build a mature sensibility and a clear sense of cause and effect that they can agency over. Whether it’s having the ability to finish a book or magazine, the skill to prepare a dish or meal, or the satisfaction of keeping a plant alive, motivating a child to do something simple that has a desirable, satisfying outcome is empowering.
- Up the stakes with matched activities. For each hour spent working toward a learning goal, match their time with an hour of television or video games. The structure will allow them to decompress while remaining active in their hobbies or learning activities.