It’s summertime and the kids have started settling into their summer slowdown, summer slide, or summer brain freeze, depending on how you choose to phrase it – but whatever you call it, you’re a little worried about it.  Well, here’s the cure to the summer slows – Family Summer University. This post first appeared May 31, 2012 as my guest blog on Melissa Taylor’s wonderful site, Imagination Soup: and next week, you can hear me discuss Family Summer University on Maria Bailey’s terrific syndicated radio show, Mom Talk Radio.


Bob Stewart, the legendary “father” of TV game show classics such as “The Price is Right,” “To Tell the Truth,” “Password,” “The $10,000 Pyramid,” and countless others died on May 4, 2012. In his memory, I fondly recall Rotbart University, now renamed Family Summer University (FSU) and ready for your enrollment. It has been nearly two decades since we founded this institution of higher learning for our kids in our backyard.

First, it’s important to share some important facts about comparative mammalian brain physiology. Children’s brains are the opposite of bears’ brains. Trust me, I’m a pediatrician and I personally know two veterinarians. Bears’ brains hibernate in the winter, awakening in the spring hungry for food, exploration, and stimulation. In contrast, children’s brains go to sleep as soon as the last day of school ends, and hibernate until sometime during the 2nd or 3rd week of school in the fall. Don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily all bad. Kids’ brains need rest and rejuvenation, structured and unstructured play, physically active days and tranquil, homework-free evenings – all of which are rare commodities during the school year. But…

The summer brain freeze (also known as the “summer slide” or the “summer slows”) oftentimes goes too far. When resting and rejuvenating brains slip into vegetative states defined by TV, video games, Facebook, text messaging marathons, and MP3 hypnosis, it’s time for an intervention. Welcome to FSU. No tuition or dormitories at this university, and no homework. Just tests, every night. But these are not ordinary tests – FSU tests are fiercely friendly and funny family competitions. Contests filled with belly laughs and prizes, at age-appropriate and attention-span-adjusted learning levels.

Thanks to Mr. Stewart and his heirs, TV game and quiz shows have permeated our society so thoroughly that it seems like we ought to get something redeeming back in exchange for all the flashing lights, clanging bells, and celebrity blather our kids are exposed to. Rather than everyone zoning out while watching TV’s spinning wheels and deals (or no deals), yawning as bachelors and bachelorettes grill each other about personal minutiae, wondering what “The Substitute” will ask next on MTV, and trying to determine once and for all whether you’re smarter than a 5thgrader, FSU lets you design and play your own “game show,” tailored to perfectly fit your kids’ knowledge and interest levels. Best of all, FSU is memorable family time that turns scarce minutes into special moments with your kids.

Every night after dinner, gather the kids to the FSU campus – the porch, patio, or a comparably comfortable venue, preferably outdoors (it’s summer, for goodness sake!). You, as Dean of FSU, are also the game show host and test question writer. Writing questions will take a little time each day, but just a little. It’s easy to find quiz questions for kids—use their school books or go online to find sample questions from all the standardized tests your kids have to take. But don’t limit yourself to school subjects—make it more fun by mixing in questions about movie and music stars, cartoon characters, your kids’ favorite storybooks, sports teams, TV shows, and anything else that captures their fancy. Questions from People magazine or help camouflage the math times tables and history questions. Sure, ask about last week’s episode of Bachelorette – right after you ask about Catcher in the Rye and Hamlet. You can get lots of ideas, and plenty of already-written questions at age-appropriate levels, on the games shelf at the toy store or from the kids’ science, literature, and math sections in the library. Look for trivia and brain teaser games, flash card sets, and home versions of those TV quiz shows we’re avoiding out here on the porch. The point is not to sterilize your kids’ summer fun or immunize them against popular media and culture—the point is to take them away from the TV and put them right in front of you, laughing and learning.

Dedicate different nights of the week to different subject areas, or mix and match questions every night from many subject areas. Have your kids design a scoreboard with their names on it. For their answers, give each child a little white eraser board or notepad, or just have them answer out loud, whatever is more fun.  Don’t overdo it – set a nightly maximum of 20 questions per child; 10 if you have more than 3 kids, lest the contest last all night! Half of the questions should be pure fun, the other half educational. Add bonus questions, musical prompts, and picture clues to make the game more interesting. After you get their answers, discuss them with your kids. Teach your kids about the questions they missed, and have your kids explain the answers they got right.

As an example, here are a few questions for a 10 year-old’s FSU quiz:

  1. Who was the 3rd President of the United States?
  2. Whom did Hermione Granger marry?
  3. Express the following two decimals as fractions: 0.800, and 0.875
  4. Name a total of 4 judges on any of the TV talent shows (like American IdolThe VoiceDancing with the Stars, etc.)? (Hint, Ryan Seacrest is not a judge and we’re really not sure what he does)
  5. Where did the Mayflower land?
  6. Name the books in the Hunger Games trilogy
  7. Who won the Cy Young award in the American League last year?
  8. What are 3 of the chemicals that make up the air we breathe?

Remember, kids at different ages get different questions within their own knowledge base, but the difficulty level should be the same – if you’re asking your 6-year old a tough question for 6-year olds, you should also be asking your 12-year old a tough one for 12-year olds.

Tally the correct number of answers for each contestant each night, and keep track. At the end of each week give a prize to the child with the highest weekly score, and then start scoring from scratch the next week so no one falls so far behind they have no chance of catching up.  Our “prize” was getting to choose the movie on family movie night or the theme for a special dinner night.  At the end of the summer, we had a “graduation” ceremony with cardboard “caps” and bed sheet “gowns” and “diplomas.” The graduation presents were $5 gift cards to the mall.  And we all went shopping for the gifts together.

Here’s the FSU promise from proud Rotbart University alumni: high quality family time, less brain freeze, and your kids’ brains won’t need waking up when school starts next fall.


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