School’s out, sun’s up and the weather is fine. On the surface, summer can seem like a great time to take a load off; however, it might actually be the best time of year to pick up a new skill. Not only does sunlight stimulate your mind and enhance cognitive function, flexible summer hours and vacation time can also open up valuable hours to learn a new skill — laying, along the way, a sturdy foundation for daily learning which that can carry over into the fall.

Learn a new language

If the last time you studied a foreign language was in high school, consider brushing up on one you used to speak or diving into a new one altogether. “[Learning a new language] opens up parts of the world and cultures you wouldn’t otherwise know about or have exposure to,” says Amanda Baker, program co-ordinator for online languages at Humber College. Learning a second language also sparks new connections in your brain, and may even help delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases.

Free apps such as DuoLingo and Lingvist can be powerful tools for expanding your vocabulary and grasp of basic grammar in your language of choice. Create an immersive environment by listening to music and watching movies in that language, and consider joining a group or taking a course that provides opportunities to practise your conversational skills.

Pick up a musical instrument

Learning to play an instrument isn't entirely different from learning a new language. Like language, music engages your senses in a new way: You’ll pick up small differences and develop fluency by learning how to read the “language” of music. Music has also been shown to help sharpen focus, expand cognitive function and even help counteract depression.

Learning a new instrument doesn’t have to be expensive, either. As part of its award-winning Making the Arts More AccessibleTM program, Sun Life has expanded its Music Lending Library initiative to make even more instruments available at local libraries in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Kitchener-Waterloo. Head to a participating library where you can borrow from a range of instruments — including guitars, drums and keyboards — to start your musical journey.

Volunteer for a good cause

Lending your time and attention to a cause can help shape your community — and it’s also good for you. Volunteering has its own health benefits, such as protecting your mental health, and it can be a great way to learn new skills, too. Help resettle Syrian refugees in your community, for example, and in the process, you’ll learn about an entirely new culture. Sign up for a series of charity runs and walks, and you’ll set yourself up with instant motivation to finish that couch-to-5k running plan.

Finding nearby volunteer opportunities is easy. Simply visit Volunteer Canada to see which placements are available in your community. Not sure what to choose? Take their volunteer quiz to find out which opportunities are a perfect match for you.

4 tips to help you master any new skill

While summer’s long days and sunshine can offer natural motivation — especially if you can study outside — you may also face some challenges as you try to keep your summer learning goals on track. These tips can help:

  1. Budget enough time. Spending just a couple of minutes each day on learning translates to slow progress, which can zap your motivation. Amanda Baker recommends devoting at least minimum of 30 minutes — or ideally, an hour — at a time for each learning session.
  2. Stay consistent. You’ll get the best results from daily — or near-daily — practice, Baker says. While you can, of course, take days off now and then, you’ll want to practise consistently enough to build your pursuit into a habit.
  3. Set mini-goals. Setting a series of small goals, which could be as simple as meeting your practice goals for 5 days in a row, makes it easier to track your progress and feel the sense of accomplishment that will leave you excited to learn more.
  4. Make it fun. Tie your learning to real-life experiences, recommends Baker. If you’re learning a foreign language, for example, set a date by which you want to be able to order a meal in that language at a local ethnic restaurant. This real-world payoff can help put more purpose behind your daily practices.

What's most important is this: Never stop learning. Don’t expect to master your skill before the leaves turn. Instead, look at it as the first step in a lifelong journey. “If you’re not continuing to develop your skills and your intellect, you can become stagnant and lose ambition,” Baker advises. “Learning is all about getting the most out of your life.”