As a mom, I feel happy and nervous when school is out for the summer. Keeping a preschooler, grade schooler, middle schooler and high schooler occupied takes effort. One thing that all four kids need over the summer is to keep learning. Here are my five go-to ways to grow their brains and help them retain all they've learned.

Library trips

When I was young, I keenly remember feeling disappointed when I reached my library checkout limit. My mom took me there almost weekly during the summer, and I became a voracious reader. Most public libraries offer summer reading programs for kids, with activities and prizes as motivators. Although you may want to read a classic or two over the summer, let your children choose their own reading material, even if they come home with an armful of comic books.

If you want to capitalize on your summer reading, set aside 30 minutes a day for family reading time, parents included. Or, have several members of the family read the same book and discuss it together. Encourage older children to read to their younger siblings, and choose a book to read aloud as a family. Your lazy summer days can be filled with good books which boost vocabulary, among other benefits.

Brain games

It's best for kids to be outside and active during the summer months, but even kids need a rest. Don't do a typical workbook every day, with sheets of math problems and handwriting. Add in brain games like Sudoku, logic puzzles and difficult mazes. Books with brain puzzles are relatively inexpensive, and photocopying pages will allow you to use the puzzles for more than one child.

You can also get apps and video games that challenge the brain. Nintendo has a series of games for its DS handheld system called Brain Age. Search the app store for your device and find other games and puzzles appropriate for your child. Older children might enjoy, which promotes "brain training." One version is free.

Outdoor learning

I try to move a lot of our learning outdoors during the summer. You can do the same. As you visit parks and historical sites, look around for information and have a discussion with your kids. On a hike, identify plants and animals you recognize and see which ones the kids know too. Exploring the outdoors is great for kids.

You don't have to venture far from home to find things to explore outside. Use your yard as a great big science laboratory. Plant seeds and watch them grow. Watch a summer storm develop and enjoy the lightning display. Go on a bug hunt or observe a spider web. Take a sketch pad and pencil outside and draw what you see, or lie on the grass and learn which clouds are floating by.

Consider camps

Various community organizations offer summer camps for kids. If your child is into science, check your local university or museum for day camps or classes. Searching online, looking for posters at the local library, watching for fliers from school and looking in newspapers are all good ways to find out about camps near you. And if you have older children, encourage them to put on activity days for their younger siblings. With a little supervision and encouragement, everyone will be entertained and learn something new.

Structured playtime

Summer days seem to go on forever. It's nice not to have to run from place to place, but structure has its place. I like to use the morning or late afternoon as our more structured time. One day we might do puzzles, the next an art project. Some moms make a calendar and assign each day an activity, like "Make It Monday," where everyone will learn to cook something new. Consider making structured playtime part of your summer learning schedule.

It's tempting to let the kids run wild all summer, and certainly free play is appropriate, but infuse your summer with some learning and your kids will be even smarter when school starts again. You'll probably learn something too.

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