In "To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee helped define the classic American summer for kids: a meandering season of exploring neighbors' backyards, playacting scenes from books and sleeping on porches.

Most parents these days are not inclined to follow Atticus Finch's laissez-faire approach to overseeing their children's long break from school -- not with the volumes of research warning of the "summer slide," that loss of reading, math and other skills that occur when kids aren't engaged in educational activities.

Summer learning doesn't mean sitting kids down to do math problems. Anything that sparks their curiosity and desire to create, solve problems or explore can be educational, says Sarah Pitcock, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association. "For example, there's lots of learning that is inherent in family projects, like planting a garden, which means you have to budget for the plants, measure the area and learn about how much sunlight and water certain plants need."

Fortunately, opportunities abound in the Bay Area, including for kids whose families cannot fit camps and special school programs into their schedules or budgets. Experts and Bay Area parents offer 12 affordable and mostly easy ways to engage kids intellectually and creatively over the next two months.

1. STEM ahead

As a world center for technology and innovation, the Bay Area boasts museums that will boost kids' STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning. Build a robot during a visit to San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation, experience the theories behind spatial relations at the Exploratorium's Geometry Playground, or invent something with the help of staff and interns at the Ingenuity Studio at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science.

Paul Kanoon, 4, of Milpitas gets acquainted with a ball python in the Milpitas Library auditorium in Milpitas, Thursday, June 19, 2014.
Paul Kanoon, 4, of Milpitas gets acquainted with a ball python in the Milpitas Library auditorium in Milpitas, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

The Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland hosts its "Summer Scientist" series, affordable drop-in workshops ($5 per person) where kids can build wind turbines or play in a Mars flight simulator.

In addition to its hands-on science and technology exhibits for kids and teens, the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose adds the "A," or arts, into STEAM education, with its drop-in visual and performing arts events and workshops.

2. Read (even to the dog)

Modern educators would give Atticus Finch props for reading at night to his daughter, Scout. Encouraging kids to read daily -- anything from novels to news stories -- is probably the most effective way to forestall the summer slide, educators say.

Local public libraries offer an invaluable resource to boost kids' literacy with access to free books, programs and educational activities.

"Libraries are interested in promoting a joy of learning and reading year-round, and it becomes especially important in the summertime," says Derek Wolfgram, a Santa Clara County District deputy librarian.

At the county's eight libraries, kids can sign up in person or online to keep a log of what they read. Anyone who completes five books is entered into a contest with the chance to win a Google Nexus Tablet or iPad mini.

Libraries throughout the Bay Area similarly host hands-on science and craft activities and talks by favorite children's authors. At Contra Costa County libraries, the Paws to Read summer festival invites young children to read aloud to dogs, who we all know are good listeners.

3. DIY literacy -- with a reward

Parents can also create their own reading programs. Dani Eston, a Walnut Creek mother of two sons, 5 and 7, draws a chart on the front of envelopes with squares representing 10 minutes of reading time. When one son fills out all five squares, he gets to open the envelope and find a prize, such as a date to get frozen yogurt or go to a movie.

For her daughters, 10 and 12, Oakland resident Laine Mette is starting a family book club. "We will choose a book together and read it and discuss," she says.

4. Get into nature

Kids hold a Burmese Python as "Python Ron" McGee does an up-close demonstration with exotic live snakes, lizards and bugs in the Milpitas Library
Kids hold a Burmese Python as "Python Ron" McGee does an up-close demonstration with exotic live snakes, lizards and bugs in the Milpitas Library auditorium in Milpitas, Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

While the Bay Area's regional, county, state and national parks are known for their gorgeous hiking trails, they also are living classrooms for learning about nature, history and culture. Naturalists at the East Bay Regional Park District lead kids of all ages on insect hunts in Tilden Park, teach them to feed farm animals at Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont or to search for sea creatures at low tide at Crab Cove in Alameda. You and your kids also can explore tide pools at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach. And in Santa Clara County, on a drop-in basis through July and August, kids ages 11 to 17 can go on "Champions for Parks" jogging adventures, while learning about wetlands and watersheds in Sanborn, Anderson Lake and Alviso Marina parks.

5. Wild things

CuriOdyssey in San Mateo's Coyote Point Recreation Area and the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek feature ways to get up close with the different creatures that call the Bay Area home. Check museum websites for special events such as Reptile Day, on July 26, at the CuriOdyssey; or Bee Bop! on Aug. 16-17, a weekend devoted to learning about bees, at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum.

6. Playground adventures

David Avidor's three sons, ages 7, 9 and 11, have a pretty busy summer, between two family vacations and a two-week outdoor camp for the oldest. Still, his sons like to stay active. When Avidor, a content developer for Palo Alto-based educational publisher Klutz Books, wants to escape the heat at home in Walnut Creek, he heads to Berkeley, where he and the boys sail down the giant slide at Codornices Park, across from the Berkeley Rose Garden, and swing from ropes and use wood scraps to build their own forts at the Adventure Playground at the Berkeley Marina.

San Mateo's Coyote Point Recreation Area is home to the castle- and dragon-themed Magic Mountain Playground and a nearby beach and salt marsh.

7. There's an app for that

Probably parents' greatest fear is that kids will fill all that unstructured free time with nonstop "Call of Duty: Black Ops." But it's a "false dichotomy" to equate all screen time with wasted potential, says Shira Lee Katz. She's the senior education director of San Francisco-based Common Sense Media, which reviews digital media for age-appropriateness and educational value. Her site's Summer Learning Guide directs parents to the best apps for educational -- and fun -- math, engineering, arts and nature games for young children to teens. Some apps also encourage kids to put down their devices to do science experiments, build their own musical instruments or go out and take photos for a video scrapbook.

8. YouTube University

You can find so much more than cute cat videos on the video-sharing website. Search and find easy-to-follow videos with kids demonstrating how to make a motor out of an AA battery, an artsy octopus from a toilet paper tube or a family dinner entree of corn-chip-crusted chicken.

9. Boost work and life skills

Summer jobs have long offered a way for teens to earn money for fun or college. But if that job hasn't materialized yet, volunteering also offers a way to burnish a résumé and college application -- and give back to the community.

The Volunteer Center of the East Bay lists about 200 summer volunteer opportunities for youths 13 to 17, and they range in terms of time commitment and causes, from helping animals to painting fences to sorting items at a food pantry. The Volunteer Center Serving San Francisco and San Mateo Counties likewise has a website that lets kids search by category, date and organization.

Teens, as well as younger kids, can create their own volunteer opportunities, says program director Dee Dee Robillard. For example, they can do a drive in their neighborhood to collect baby clothes to donate to a shelter for families in crisis. "Just like careers, there is a lot of variety out there and a whole lot of different ways to help," she says.

Kids and teens also can check out DoSomething.org, a website where entrepreneurial young do-gooders can share ideas and support and win scholarships.

10. Free arts

Most art museums in the Bay Area offer free or discounted admission to children and teens. They also host free family tours and studio workshops, such as Saturday morning programs at the de Young and Legion of Honor museums in San Francisco.

Also, check out admission-free days, such as Sundays at the Asian Art Museum or pay-what-you-can Tuesdays at the Cartoon Art Museum. And, admission is always free at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center in Palo Alto, where kids can explore an outdoor garden displaying Rodins and other sculptures.

11. Get festive

You can always count on summer festivals for free or low-cost music, entertainment, crafts and games. The parenting website Red Tricycle publishes a list of top summer activities and festivals for families.

On July 19, the daylong Chevron Family Theatre Festival at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center will feature children's plays, dance performances and magic shows.

The Avidor family members are big fans of the Berkeley Kite Festival, which takes place this year July 26-27 and features kite making, the world's largest octopus kite and rokkaku Japanese fighter kite battles. Or, join Bay Area Pacific Islanders for a weekend of music, dance, art, island cuisine at the Bay Area Aloha Festival in Saratoga on Aug. 2-3.

12. Head start for college

OK, your entering high school senior may not put these activities into the fun category, but prepping for tests, gathering transcripts and other records and starting the applications over summer break -- notably the dreaded essays -- will reduce stress when deadlines hit in the fall. The Common Application, the standardized application for 500 schools across the country, goes online Aug. 1.

Summer Learning Connections

Some of the places, events and websites to keep your kids engaged:

National Summer Learning Association: www.summerlearning.org
Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose: www.thetech.org
Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland: www.chabotspace.org
Exploratorium, San Francisco: www.exploratorium.edu
Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley: www.lawrencehallofscience.org
Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose: www.cdm.org
Santa Clara County Library District: www.sccl.org
Contra Costa County Library summer reading: http://guides.ccclib.org/srf
East Bay Regional Parks: www.ebparks.org
Santa Clara County Parks Department: www.sccgov.org
County of San Mateo Parks Department: parks.smcgov.org
Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, San Mateo County: www.fitzgeraldreserve.org
CuriOdyssey, Coyote Point, San Mateo: www.curiodyssey.org
Lindsay Wildlife Museum, Walnut Creek: http://wildlife-museum.org
Codornices Park, Berkeley Rose Garden and Adventure Playground, City of Berkeley Park, Recreation and Waterfront: www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/PRW
Common Sense Media: www.commonsensemedia.org
California Employment Development Department: www.edd.ca.gov
Volunteer Center of the East Bay: www.volunteereastbay.org
Volunteer Center Serving San Francisco and San Mateo Counties: www.thevolunteercenter.net
DoSomething.org: www.dosomething.org
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (de Young and Legion of Honor): www.famsf.org
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco: www.asianart.org
Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco: http://cartoonart.org
Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University: http://museum.stanford.edu
Red Tricycle's "Ultimate Summer Bucket List": http://redtri.com/san-francisco-kids
Chevron Family Theatre Festival: www.lesherartscenter.org
Bay Area Aloha Festival: www.pica-org.org/alohafest
Berkeley Kite Festival: www.highlinekites.com
Common Application: www.commonapp.org