The kids may be on summer break, but that doesn’t mean the skills they learned all year have to take a vacation, too. While there is much to be said for kicking back, it’s all too easy for extra screen time to become the norm. Read on for 11 creative ideas that’ll give those golden afternoons a little brain boost.

photo: Kiril Rusev via Flickr

1. Just add STEM. Whether you can hit the beach or hike to a lake, shoreline opportunities abound for budding scientists and engineers of all ages. From the architecture of driftwood forts and behavior of geese to the sorting of shells and astrophysics of tides, this roundup from the National Association for the Education of Young Children is a verified treasure map.

2. Pot a garden. Spring may have sailed, but there is plenty of time for your little sprouts to grow some of their own. These 100% recycled indoor potted plants from Green Toys offer a great opportunity to tend to nature. Plus, a watched pot will bloom—seeds break soil in a matter of days!

3. Bake in a dash of division. For the preschool set, How Many Ways Can You Cut a Pie? makes a clever cookbook companion for simple, accessible fractions. After, distribute those halves, fourths, or eighths to neighbors or friends as a sweet lesson in sharing the fruits of your labor. If baking isn’t your jam, try it with pancakes or pizza!

4. Scour weekend garage sales for used books. If you’re looking for a different way to show bookworms the importance of reuse, a neighborhood yard sale will do the trick. Added perk: rediscovering nostalgic titles from your own youth (Beatrix Potter box set, anyone?). At the end of summer, donate the literary loot to a local library in order to make room for school year reads.

photo: Seoulful Adventures via Flickr

5. Strike up a summer pen-pal-ship. Technology is cool and all, but the thrill of finding an old-school letter in the mailbox can’t be beat. Inspire your little Austen or Flaubert to write to a cousin who lives out of town, craft a card for a neighbor, or color a comic strip for a best friend from school. If you need a stamp, snag a Total Eclipse of the Sun, the first ever to transform with the heat of your thumb—from eclipse to full moon. When was the last time your snail mail did that?

6. Swap school nights for summer nights. Keep your eye on the night sky and treat future astronomers to staying up late enough to zoom in on the cosmos. If you don’t have a telescope, look no further than your phone or tablet. These stargazing apps will bring faraway galaxies into the palm of your hand. And stars go great with s’mores (just sayin’).

7. Save screen time for staying sharp. Turfmutt for the win. This online stewardship and education program offers digital storybooks, outdoor-themed activity sheets, interactive video games, and a chance for little scribes to write their own stories thanks to a “story idea spinner.” Activities are available in two categories: for kids in grades K-2 and older students in grades 3-5.

8. Check out a concert series. Libraries, parks, and town plazas often line up musical acts for the summer. With fewer arts in the schools these days, this is a fun (and usually free!) opportunity to see live music. And kids’ acts are the friendliest to their littlest fans—they’d love to talk tunes after the show.

photo: The Purple Cow

9. Sign up for Survival 101. Grade schoolers especially will love The Crazy Scientist LAB kits from The Purple Cow. Each kit offers gear, a guide, and facts that are all the more empowering when your kid gets to be the scientist. Young Survivor, for instance, teaches basic yet life-saving skills. Think purified water, solar stoves, Morse code, and more.

10. Have a sense-ational scavenger hunt. Pick a park or even the backyard and challenge your scavengers to notice what they can see, smell, hear, touch, and taste (like that delicious pie you made!).

11. Don’t forget to just play! Unstructured, spontaneous fun is always important. Play gives young ones the chance to practice all they’ve learned and is honestly what summer—and childhood—is all about.

What are your surefire ways to ward off summer slide? Add your ideas in the Comments below!

—Jennifer Massoni Pardini