The Lost Summer of 2020? How to Balance Fun and Learning for Worn Out Kids

The spring of 2020 was an uphill climb for students, especially those with ADHD and learning challenges. Remote learning was a heavy burden for many and simply a disaster for others, who breathed a sigh of relief when summer arrived. Yes, your child deserves a break, but it’s perhaps more critical than ever for children to continue to engage their brains over the summer. Here’s how.

Summer plans: Stack of hardback books and open book lying on bench
Stack of hardback books and open book lying on bench at sunset park against blurred nature backdrop.

Welcome to your pandemic summer — a season of corkscrew turns, gut-plunging dips, and thrilling new experiences. Though this is not a roller coaster any of use chose to ride, we’re all trying to make it work despite a strong nagging concern about the “COVID slide” – lost academic progress due to virtual learning challenges, exacerbated by a traditional summer slide, that will leave children with ADHD and learning disabilities struggling to catch up.

Yes, our children absolutely need to wind down and enjoy themselves this summer. But they also need to engage in fruitful, educational activities to keep their brains active and engaged – they simply can’t afford not to. Here’s how to create and structure summer plans that strike a balance between learning and fun.

Creating Summer Plans: Two Guiding Questions

Step One: Involve your child in crafting their summer plans — including educational and leisure activities — as much as possible. Begin by helping them think through leisure ideas by asking:

  • What are your priorities for this summer?
  • What are you interested in learning or doing?

Here’s one whole-family exercise to “open the floodgates,” so to speak:

  • Get a stack of sticky notes and set a timer to about four minutes.
  • Have each family member write – as fast as possible – everything they want to experience or accomplish this summer. Each Post-It should have one activity or goal.
  • Stick the completed Post-Its on a surface where everyone can see.

The notes won’t dictate how to structure your days, but they will start a dialogue and get even reluctant children to creatively open up. While the goal is to figure out how children want to spend their summer, parents can and should place “restrictions” on certain activities prior to starting the dialogue or exercise – only some fraction of ideas may involve a screen, for example. Clearing the air right away can prevent arguments and stress later on.

[Summer in the Time of the Pandemic: At-Home Activities for Kids with ADHD]

Summer Plans: Learning and Resources

Learning this summer should focus more on positive, quality engagement rather than forced, negative experiences. Act as a supportive coach for your child, and refrain from criticizing or correcting minor errors in the work they complete. To avoid unhelpful battles, keep in mind this question: “What do I want my child to remember about this time?”

Reading, writing, and math are at the core of quality learning, though other subjects can also be explored, especially by older students.


Traditional hard-copy books are just fine, but so are audio books, ebooks, and graphic novels. The latter formats are by no means “cheating” – the end goal is to get our children actively engaged with books.

The subject matter should be age-appropriate and, most importantly, enjoyable to the child. Consider using Amazon’s search function to query books based on interest; this can be a great way to find a book series your child falls in love with. As a rule of thumb, your child should aim to read at least four long books each summer.

Online tools can also make reading fun and effortless. Scholastic’s Learn at Home program (now free) has “daily reading quests,” book clubs, and other activities divided by age group.

[Download This Free Guide: 20 Secrets to a Smarter Summer]


Writing is often tough for kids with ADHD due to deficits in working memory – the ability to keep one thing in your head while doing another. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, and penmanship are all simultaneous writing priorities, making the activity difficult. That’s why writing as a summer learning activity has to be as painless as possible.

Journaling can be a fun, stress-free way to get children to put something down on paper. Scrapbooking or comic drawing – with some writing here and there – is a good alternative.

Creative writing prompts can also get children excited about putting down their thoughts. For excellent prompts, visit John Spencer, an English teacher at and subscribe to the “Writing Prompts for Students” playlist.

NoRedInk, a website that helps children with writing and grammar, is also an excellent resource. Exercises are engaging because they are based off of the child’s unique profile, built by asking questions about their favorite movies, sports, and more.


The goal here is to keep the foundation strong. Math workbooks or sheets (many can found online for free) and online exercises at Khan Academy or similar are straightforward ways to exercise and strengthen math muscles. Parents can also encourage children to apply concepts to the real world – by prepping ingredients for dinner or setting up a “play store” at home. Younger children should focus on concepts in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Older students should concentrate on fractions, decimals, and percentages – the building blocks of algebra in high school.

More math resources:

  • Teachers Pay Teachers: A teaching resources and lesson-plan website. Math worksheets and assignments are available for free or for purchase, typically for a few dollars.
  • IXL: IXL is a personalized learning site covering all school subjects, making it a great option for self-guided, adaptive math lessons. Math lessons can be accessed for $9.95 a month, but other payment plans and options are available.

Structure: Putting  Summer Plans Together

Fun and learning should be blended through daily routines. Note that the keyword is “routine” – we don’t want to create a strict, inflexible schedule for our children. A routine simply conveys a general idea of where the day will go.

Two Parts to the Day: Morning and Afternoon

The most basic routine views the day in two chunks: morning and afternoon (or after lunch). For most children, morning should be where the heavy lifting (or learning component) gets done, while the afternoon should be dedicated to the leisure activities identified in the exercise above.

Why? For most of us, morning is when our energy, motivation, and vigilance is highest. As the morning progresses, we get better at batting away distractions. When afternoon hits, we experience a significant decline, and our energy and performance are impacted. Our levels eventually rise later in the day, but they don’t reach the peaks experienced in the morning.

Leaving activities for later in the day also creates a type of reward system, where children look forward to completing their learning to arrive at leisure.

Frequency of Summer Learning

Children should engage in a subject multiple times a week, rather than once. Frequent engagement wards off what’s known as the “forgetting curve” – or loss of learned information – that contributes to the summer slide.

Studies show that even 10 minutes of math a day, four days a week, is better than one 40-minute chunk of math just once a week. Devise a routine, therefore, that includes short but effective learning slots.

Track Time and Tasks

Even the most motivated learners sometimes struggle with procrastination and organizing their time.

Timers are great for warding off distractions and helping kids focus intently on the task at hand. For reluctant learners, or for those who can’t seem to get in the groove, set a timer for up to 10 minutes when starting a task. This short space of time, which we’ll call the “tolerable 10,” can trick and kickstart the mind into productivity.

The Pomodoro technique also helps learners can organize themselves around time. Set a timer to 25 minutes of work – what most older children and adults can handle before motivation starts to wane, followed by five minutes of rest. If 25 minutes is too much for a child, especially younger ones, a good rule of thumb is to take their age and add one – a good baseline of time they should get some work done.

Implementation of a Summer Schedule

How do we make sure our children actually follow their routines and get some learning done, especially when parents are consumed by their own work?

Talk to them about their day the night before. Set up a to-do list together so expectations are clear. Put tasks clearly in writing for younger children, who are more likely to follow through when they know exactly what they’re supposed to do. For older students, ask them questions like, “What are your priorities for tomorrow?”

Give choices. Help children, especially younger ones, independently select learning activities by laying out choices with them beforehand. This can be a list they can refer to, a visual board of activities, or “work stations” set up around the home with tasks.

Parents need to set boundaries for themselves. Children need to understand that parents may not be available all day to help with a learning or leisure activity. Beyond shutting the door and verbally conveying work time and down time, parents can set up visual systems or signals: A piece of red construction paper outside the door means absolutely no entering, a yellow one means proceed if needed, and green is an open-door policy.

Flexibility is a must in these upside-down times. Value the preservation of positive relationships over discipline and perfection. Use the “blind-eye strategy” to avoid arguments and get children, especially older ones, to stick to some routine – you can say you’re willing to turn a blind eye to their Netflix use or video-game use if they are up out of bed before 10 a.m. and work on their academics for the day first.

[Read This Next: How to Help a Child with ADHD Stick to Their Schedule]


This article is based on the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar with Ann Dolin, M.Ed., “Learning, Fun, Free Time: How to Balance and Structure the Lazy, Crazy Days of Summer for Children with ADHD,” which broadcast live on June 8, 2020.

To support our team as it pursues helpful and timely content throughout this pandemic, please join us as a subscriber. Your readership and support help make this possible. Thank you.