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Learning should not cease when school lets out for summer

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sunflowerBy Caren Chaffee 


As the summer months approach, many youth will be out of school for summer break.  However, learning should not cease just because another grade level comes to an end.


There are many opportunities for youth to continue to learn, whether they are enrolled in a structured educational program throughout the warm weather months. Activities that promote learning do not have to be overly structured, expensive or time-consuming. Rather, the best opportunities are often environmental or situational endeavors.


The outdoors provides an excellent opportunity to explore and learn. Nature walks give youth the opportunity to take a closer look at the beauty of the world around them. They may find vegetation that is unfamiliar to them and choose to do some follow-up Internet research to identify it. Or, they may catch sight of a bird or hear a bird call that they had not heard before. Youth with a penchant for creativity may collect a few items and create beautiful art from nature.  After dark, youth can view the night sky and learn about stars, constellations and planets.


Parks provide opportunities for youth to grow socially. Children typically gravitate to playground equipment and swing sets. Often, even children who are tentative to make new friends are drawn into imaginative play as groups of their peers explore and create scenarios on playgrounds shaped like castles and pirate ships. Unplanned “play dates” emerge as children who may not otherwise spend time together find themselves embroiled in creating new, fluid story lines which change as the “characters” arrive at and leave the playground throughout the day.


Local parks also offer occasions for pick-up basketball, volleyball or baseball games. While these games are excellent opportunities for youth to hone their athletic skills, even more important lessons are learned: Teamwork, cooperation and turn-taking, which are valuable tutorials that youth can carry with them throughout their lives.


Gardening is a popular summer activity. However, not all youth have an opportunity to tend to a backyard garden. If possible, youth can offer to help a neighbor with his or her garden, volunteer to tend a garden at a local park or provide similar outdoor or landscaping assistance at a senior center. Gardens offer excellent lessons on healthy food choices, but more importantly, help children learn the importance of patience and careful cultivation in helping something grow.


Summer months don’t always carry the promise of good weather. In the event that poor weather prohibits outdoor play and learning, one of the easiest and most significant activities that can encourage youth to continue to learn is reading. Local libraries open a world of opportunity at no cost. Research demonstrates that youth who are proficient at reading are more likely to graduate from school. If poor literacy skills extend into adulthood, they represent a significantly higher risk of living in poverty. Promoting literacy among children and youth is one of the most important lessons an adult can impart on a child. In fact, high frequency reading parents are six times more likely to have high frequency reading children. Therefore, it is important for youth to witness significant adults in their lives invested in reading and literacy.


While the warm weather offers a multitude of learning opportunities in the absence of a structured educational program, adults are a key part of cultivating this learning. Significant adults in the lives of youth must help expose them to these opportunities and encourage them to participate in activities that will further their learning.


Former homeless teen shares mental health struggles at SAMHSA's National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day

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Michelle Vance wants the world to know that a stable home environment is the most critical requirement for a young person to succeed in school, find steady employment and have access to necessary health care. And it becomes even more important if that young person is struggling to gain control of a mental illness. Vance was one of five young adults to share their experiences with mental health troubles at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day on May 6 in Washington D.C.


Vance, 24, knows what it is like to have nowhere to call home. As a teenager, she spent six months couch-surfing, sleeping in her car and constantly worrying about where she would find her next meal. She was exhausted, stressed and bedraggled. People often asked her if she was abusing drugs. “It would have been more helpful,” she said, “if someone had asked if I had eaten or slept.”


Vance was fortunate to meet a mentor who found her a safe place to stay and helped her pave a new path, but not before she found herself in some scary situations. “Every night, I had to figure out where I was going to spend the night,” she said, adding that couch-surfing is not really free. “I had to bend some of my own values and beliefs to stay safe.”


Now, Vance is becoming a vocal advocate for other young people dealing with similar hardships, and she is immensely grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with other young people to hopefully enact change and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness.


“The only person who will change my life is myself,” she said. “But the support of peers who want the best for me is incredibly helpful.”


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