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Nine Free Outdoor Activities to Lessen the COVID Slide in Reading and Spelling

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

If you’re like most parents, the COVID-19 pandemic has probably caused upheaval in your life. Maybe you had to rearrange childcare or you took on homeschooling as an additional or new job. If you weren’t a teacher before the pandemic, homeschooling was likely overwhelming. Between the level of education your child’s school offered during the last 2-3 months of school and whatever you managed to supplement, you’re probably (and understandably) concerned about how much your child learned at the end of the last school year.

Luckily, there are many things you can do to lessen what some are now calling the “COVID slide” in reading and spelling, which your child may be experiencing during this extended time outside of school. I’m going to share 9 simple activities you can do outdoors with your child. They’re great ways to get your child off screens and get outside and move, all while keeping up their skills. You can use what you already have, so all of these activities should be FREE!

Summer Slide

During the summer, students “lose” some of the skills they gained during the school year. The loss varies by grade level, type of skills, and income level, but research has shown that on average, students in grades 3-5 lose 20% of the reading skills they gained during the school year. “Things like decoding, letter knowledge, and word reading skills are very susceptible to decay without frequent practice,” according to Harvard professor Dr. James Kim. Summer slides occur while kids are focused on non-academic activities. This year, parents and educators worry the slide has been extended, thanks to the coronavirus.


In the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus was on “flattening the curve,” which involved taking precautions to slow down the spread of the virus including closing schools mid-way through the spring semester.

Closing the schools had numerous implications for children, including socio-emotional, but let’s focus on academics.

It’s difficult to gauge the extent of learning our children did in the spring. On a whole, we can assume that given how quickly we were forced to transition to remote education and our schools’ and teachers’ lack of preparedness, probably not much. Many children had a difficult time adjusting, staying motivated, and remaining engaged. And students with learning differences were at a significant disadvantage.

While flattening the curve of illnesses, overall our children likely experienced a downward curve in learning. Adding that learning loss to the typical summer slide, our students have been hit with a “double whammy.” Dr. Megan Kuhfeld, a research scientist at the Northwest Evaluation Association's Collaborative for Student Growth Research Center, who mentioned this ‘double whammy’ to CNN, estimated the level of learning retention that will occur during COVID.

The Potential Impact of COVID on Reading Skills

Along with her colleague Dr. Beth Tarasawa, Dr. Kuhfeld used existing data to estimate the level of learning students will retain over the five months they will likely be out of school during the COVID pandemic. According to the researchers, “preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year.”

Unfortunately, our children may not retain 30% of the learning they gained in reading last year and Dr. Ken Pugh of Yale University states, “Learning to read is one of the most challenging tasks that school children face and we fear the prolonged loss of instruction could be catastrophic.”

Clearly it’s important we do whatever we can manage (which might not be much given the current circumstances) to keep up our kids’ skills. While they might not return to school at the same level as last school year, any practice helps.

There are many outdoor activities parents can do with their children to help them retain, and even develop, their reading and spelling skills over the summer months. Below are nine reading and spelling activities you or another caregiver can do with your child outside. They can all be adjusted to your child’s abilities.

Nine Outdoor Activities to Maintain Reading and Spelling Skills

When coming up with activities for your child to do, especially if they involve “school skills,” it’s important to be flexible and allow your child to choose and even help design the activities they prefer. They may already be resistant to practicing their reading and spelling skills over the summer, so do your best to make it fun. Even just five minutes can help. Try a variety of activities throughout the summer (and continue using them into the fall). And don’t forget to read to your child!

The activities below are most appropriate for lower elementary school-age students.

1. Read and Jump: Write a letter or word on a piece of paper or small whiteboard. Hold up one word at a time for your child to read before they jump (or dive) into the water. Don’t have a pool or access to a lake? Have your child jump off a step, on a trampoline, or across cracks on the sidewalk.

2. Scavenger Hunt: Write 7-10 letters or words on index cards (depending on your child’s reading abilities). Hide the cards around the yard. Each time your child finds one, have them read the card before searching for the next one. For more fun, give your child letters or words to write on the cards and have them hide them for you to find.

3. Write on the Driveway: Give your child words to spell on the driveway or sidewalk with chalk.

Or try some variations on some "old school" games:

  • Write 9 words in a tic-tac-toe board and take turns reading and circling (O) or crossing out (X) the words

  • Draw a “Boggle” board by making a 4x4 grid with a different letter in each box. Have your child make words using only the letters in the 16 boxes (you can decide whether they need to be touching, like in the real Boggle game).

  • Draw a hopscotch pattern and write a word in each box.

4. Play Catch: Ask your child to name a letter in the alphabet. Toss a ball back and forth and alternate saying a word beginning with the sound the letter makes each time one of you catches the ball. Don’t correct your child if they say a word whose first sound matches but is spelled with a different letter. For example, if the sound is “s” and your child says “cereal,” this still counts, even though cereal starts with c. Accept spelling differences as long as the sound matches (another example would be allowing words that are spelled with ph or f). This activity will help your child develop phonological awareness.

For some added challenges:

  • Say a word beginning with a different letter and see if your child catches your mistake.

  • Say a word beginning with the last sound in the previous word. For example, after your child says “ball,” you could say “ladder” and then your child could say “road.”

5. Obstacle Course: Have your child set up an obstacle course using equipment you already own, including cones, hoola hoops, pop-out tunnels, and exercise balls. At each obstacle place an index card with a letter or word for them to read.

6. Bean Bag Toss/Cornhole: Here are two ways you can have your child read while tossing a bean bag:

  • Write a letter or word on a piece of paper or a small white board. Hold up one word at a time for your child to read before they toss a bean bag toward a cornhole board. To keep the activity flowing, stand near the board and toss the bean bags back to your child after each turn.

  • Write letters or words on index cards. Lay the cards out on the ground face up. After your child tosses a bean bag on a card and reads the card it landed on, take away the card. To add some competition to the game, include point values on the cards, take turns tossing and reading, and add up the points at the end of the game. Don’t take away points for letters or words your child misreads.

7. Hide in the Sand: Hide magnetic (or similar) letters in a sandbox. Each time your child finds a letter, have them tell you the sound it makes. Once they’ve found enough letters, put words together for them to read.

8. Write in the Sand: Give your child letters or short words to write with their index finger in a sandbox, at the beach, or on a tray covered with sand. Have them say the sounds the letters make while writing them.

9. Bounce a Ball: Have your child bounce a ball once for each syllable in a word you provide while saying the individual syllables. For example, for the word summertime, they should bounce the ball three times while saying “sum...mer...time.” Take turns and have your child give you long words to bounce out. My students love to ask me to divide supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. That’s 14 bounces!

Which Words Should They Read and Spell?

If you’re not sure which words to have your child read or spell, contact me for a list that contains words of increasing difficulty. If your child has no problem reading the simpler ones, move on to the more difficult words. My list includes made-up words, too. By reading the made-up words, your child is developing the skills they’ll need to eventually read longer, unfamiliar words. It’ll also help keep the activities more interesting.

What Next?

These activities are perfect for children to do with their parents as well as other caregivers. Share them with your child’s babysitter, nanny, or au pair!

If you need help coming up with words for your child to read and/or spell, contact me. I'll send you a list of words that increase in difficulty, as well as nonsense words that follow the patterns of the real words.

In the comments section below, please share the activities you try out with your child. Did you come up with any others? Please share!


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