Children can learn on the cheap this summer

Want to take your children somewhere fun and educational this summer but money is tight? No problem, says a children’s play expert at Washington University in St. Louis. Your answer might even be as close as your own backyard.


“One activity that I always recommend to parents is going to museums as a family,” says Keith Sawyer, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and psychology in Arts & Sciences. Sawyer is one of the country’s leading experts on the science of creativity. He studies creativity, everyday conversation, children’s play and everyday social life. He is author of the book “Pretend Play as Improvisation” (1997), among others.

“It’s a pretty low-cost activity,” he says. “You can go to a science center, or a children’s museum in particular. Those are very effective environments for informal learning where children interact with exhibits, they interact with other children who are there and they interact with the parents.”

Social interaction results in very effective learning, Sawyer says. And the great part? The cost is low.

“Here in St. Louis, our science center has free admission. But in other cities, it’s really not that expensive to take your family to the science center or the children’s museum. Or even something like an art or history museum. Just go to all those museums over the course of the summer,” he suggests.

In the last 10 or 20 years, education researches have become very interested in how children learn in informal outside of the classroom, Sawyer says. One of the most interesting informal learning environments is the museum, because it’s a place where children interact with their parents, with their siblings and with other children in the context of learning.

He says research shows a strong link between social interaction and effective learning, making museums a perfect hands-on learning environment for children.

With the end of the school year approaching, children will be spending more time at home. Or if both parents are working, they may have to look into day care options. While Sawyer thinks it’s important for children to continue to have the daily peer interaction they get in school, day care for the summer can get expensive.

To provide that peer interaction, he recommends scheduling play dates at least once per week. “Then your child gets that active interaction so they don’t lose their social skills and they don’t lost that ability to interact with people their same age,” he says.

While a summer camp is a great opportunity for social interaction, a summer-long camp can be very expensive,

Sawyer recommends looking into shorter two-week camps that meet during the day. Day camp will give your child social interaction, as well as an opportunity to strengthen skills learned in school, like music or dance.

“It gets them in a learning environment so they don’t forget how to learn or forget how to be in a school setting and it helps them learn at a relatively low cost,” he says.

And don’t forget just plain, old free time as a great learning opportunity for children this summer.

“One of the great things about summer is that the weather is good,” Sawyer says. “There is nothing cheaper than having your child just go out in the back yard. Children love just being outdoors. Make sure your child gets outside and enjoys the weather and enjoys the outdoors.”