Most education experts agree that summer learning programs benefit students in many ways – they often prevent losses in academic skills over the summer, and they provide extracurricular enrichment. For low-income children, they also provide meals and an outlet for physical activity. But summer learning doesn’t offer everything a child needs. All children require some downtime to flourish, one child expert cautions.
Summer learning programs are primarily aimed at stopping summer learning loss, which is especially pronounced in lower-income families. Children in such families often lose two to three months of learning, as measured by standardized tests in the fall.
Learning loss is not a local problem but a national one, said educator Earl Phalen, founder of the Summer Advantage USA learning program in Indianapolis. He pointed to it as one of the reasons why U.S. students keep losing ground to foreign students in math and science.
“You’ll find that those students are going to school on average 30 to 45 more days a year than our children are,” he said. “I think it’s necessary for our country to be competitive because even the best of our best students, quite frankly, when put up against other countries’ best, are not doing as well as they once did.”
Summer learning is crucial to increasing the academic performances of U.S. students, agreed Ron Fairchild, founding CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, a nonprofit organization based in Baltimore devoted to expanding summer learning opportunities for youth. But he added that only quality programs will have much effect on summer learning loss.
“If you provide a high-quality, comprehensive, six-week summer learning program to kids, there’s solid research evidence that shows that not only will those kids not experience loss, but they’ll actually experience a gain in reading and math performance,” he said.
Summer Advantage, for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, closely follows Fairchild’s model. Third-graders in his program posted measureable gains in math and language arts this year, Phalen reported. But there have been other benefits as well. “Equally important, it helps them gain the confidence about who they are and who they can become because of the exposures to the range of professions that our scholars get exposed to,” he said.
Jared Grinter, 11, enjoyed just about everything he encountered during six weeks of Summer Advantage, including the academics. “My favorite part of the Summer Advantage program was the math. We got to learn new things,” said Jared, who is a fifth-grader at Central Elementary in Pike Township.
Jared explained that the field trips, science experiments and math and reading games gave him a head start. “When I went back to school my teacher said, ‘What is 25 times 28?’ And I said, ‘700!’” he explained.
It helps that Jared likes math. Guadalupe Arce, 18, of Dunn, N.C., had quite the opposite experience. As the daughter of migrant workers from Mexico, she was enrolled at age 11 in a summer program to improve her English. But she said the classes were boring and ineffective.
“We barely did anything. I didn’t learn a thing,” she said. “Most of the students who were in the program were Hispanic. We talked to each other in Spanish. I went to it so my parents wouldn’t have to find a babysitter,” she recalled.
Tapping a child’s interest seems to be key to the success of a summer learning program. Priya Mirmira, 13, an eighth-grader at Zionsville West Middle School, said she has attended summer camps for as long as she can remember because both of her parents work. This year was no different, and she spent much of the summer in camps, both academic and recreational.
Her favorite was a two-week program on art and math at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “I learned how to calculate quadratic equations, not that I haven’t done them before but these were a bit more complicated,” she said, explaining that in her free time she also worked math problems assigned by her mother.
While such a regimen may be daunting for some, it isn’t for Priya. “I’m not a firm believer in slacking off during the summer. My Number One goal is to get into a good college, like the University of Chicago,” she said.
Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., practices social adolescent medicine, and while he says enrichment is an important part of summer, children need to have some downtime to process those experiences.
“Every kid needs a balance of play, of academics and of the kind of extracurriculars that allows them to figure out what makes their heart sing,” said Ginsburg, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Unstructured play and leisure are critical to a child’s development, and it’s important not to lose track of them in the drive to address learning losses. “The job of childhood is play. That is the way people figure things out when they’re young,” Ginsburg explained. “It is actually an amazing opportunity to build your brain, to come up with creative thought, to come up with new ideas.”
For some children like Jared, though, free time does not equal play. His summer program provided the balance to what might otherwise have been an idle summer in his apartment. “I really can’t go outside in the summer because I really don’t have anything to do. I just sit in the house, be bored, watch TV, sleep,” he said.
However, he wasn’t initially sold on a structured program. “I never went to summer school before and I thought it was going to be boring, but when I got there it was fun,” he said. “We got to play outside.”
Finding the right balance for each child will go a long way in addressing learning losses, Ginsburg said.
“When America is falling behind, it’s not just about academics; it’s about the fact that there are some areas where kids are getting kind of an inadequate education. And when that is the case, we absolutely need to do everything we can to increase their exposure to good education because every kid deserves that opportunity,” he said.
“But for those kids who are already blessed to have wonderful access to education, then we have to make sure they have other things in their life to balance it.”
And for those children, the downtime might be what’s missing.
“When kids feel pressured to perform for other people all of the time, whether that’s academics or whether that’s being overscheduled, then they’re not going to be having the time to find themselves and to kind of figure out some things on their own, which is really important to being resilient, to being able to bounce back from problems. It’s having some time to figure things out and to experiment with different solutions that play gives you,” Ginsburg said.
Assistant editors Ali Tahir, 15, and Naomi Farahan, 13, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press