Summer: Sunshine and Stress

Linda Baker
May 22, 2006

 Participants in the RBI summer program in Harlem, NYC.

Many Americans have an idyllic image of summer as a carefree time when kids get to sleep in, hang out with friends, and make regular treks to the local pool or beach. But if that's the kind of unstructured summer many school-age kids had in the 1970s, it hardly resembles the summer most children—or their parents—experience today.

Every spring, newspapers and parenting magazines run special summer camp issues featuring dozens of science, art, and recreational camps, not to mention specialized offerings such as tai-kwon-do and Chinese language immersion. It all sounds great and enriching—but the proliferation of such programs reflects a couple of harsh realities about summer in the 21st century.

For many parents, June, July and August have become the most financially challenging months of the year. And since most summer camps only run for one or two weeks at a time, summer also requires cobbling together multiple kinds of programming: art camp one week, swimming lessons the next, followed by a break for family vacation and another round of sports and theater camps. The transportation issues alone can be mind-boggling.

"Everyone talks about the gap between after school child care and work," said Jeffrey Capizzano, Director of Public Policy and Research at Teaching Strategies Inc., a Washington D.C. based publishing and training firm. "Those problems are magnified tremendously during the summer."

Unequal Impact

Capizzano is the co-author of a 2002 Urban Institute Report: "What Happens When the School Year is Over." He said that researchers have found children in low-income families left unsupervised display greater antisocial behavior than children in supervised care. And school-age children who spend time unsupervised exhibit greater behavioral problems than those who do not. "Low-income children have the most to gain from supervised, enriching activities," Capizzano said. "We need to find more summertime activities for low-income kids."

And of course the financial and logistical problems associated with summer are more acute for low- and moderate-income families, for whom pricey camp offerings are way out of reach. For these families, even the most basic summer care can be overwhelmingly expensive. Consider Katherine Millan, a legal assistant in Portland, Ore. During the school year, Millan pays $325 a month to enroll her 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son in after school care at Children's Club, a program for low-income families.

Old-fashioned summer enjoyment at the Trailblazers program in N.J.

During the summer, the cost of care almost triples. Millan pays $800 a month for 40 hours of child care a week—also at Children's Club. "It's almost impossible," she says. Over the past decade, education policies such as No Child Left Behind have focused on closing the achievement gap between white and minority, middle-class and low-income students. But community leaders have yet to direct their attention to the tremendous disparity that exists during the summer between programs for the rich and programs for the poor.

This disparity manifests itself in several ways. A number of recent studies document slight gains in middle-class children's test scores during the summer months, while low-income children's scores show declines of over two months of grade-level equivalency. As a result, low-income children's reading skill levels fall approximately 3 months behind those of their middle-class peers over the summer—a difference equal to about a third of the typical learning that takes place during a regular school year.

See "The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores," by Harris Cooper, Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri.

Wealthy kids spend their summers enrolled in nature, science and art camps, punctuated with family vacations and the occasional trip abroad, said Brenda McLaughlin, deputy director for the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University, a policy and research group. Poor kids, by contrast, spend a disproportionate amount of time at home alone or in programs with minimal mental or physical enrichment. "The difference in summer services offered to middle and low income communities is pretty striking," McLaughlin said.

The Summertime Class Divide

Over the past few years, new books have documented the creative and emotional deficits associated with today's hyper-competitive and over-structured child rearing environment. Robert Coles' The Over-Schueduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper Parenting Trap, and Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder are two examples.

For this genre, the target audience is clear: middle- and upper-middle-income families who have the means to over-structure their kids' lives. The nostalgia many baby boomer parents harbor for their own carefree summers reflects specific social and economic factors that allowed those unstructured summers to flourish: middle-class incomes and stay-at-home mothers. Even in the 1970s, many kids didn't have happy-go-lucky summers—and many disadvantaged children may have wished for just a little more structure in their lives.

Read the Public Agenda report: All Work and No Play?: Listening to What Kids and Parents Really Want from Out-of-School Time

A 2004 report by Public Agenda, a non-profit research organization, found that a majority of school-age children would like to have structured, academically oriented activities available during the summer.

Some Promising Steps

Still, there are signs of innovation.


Learn more about summer learning loss

This year, the Center for Summer Learning honored four exemplary programs around the country with their 2006 Excellence in Summer Learning Awards. One of the award winners, Harlem RBI, began in the 1990s as a Little League program. Although baseball practice started at 3:00 p.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m., kids showed up every day at noon, then hung around the park until 5 p.m. "The kids were just desperate for things to do," McLaughlin said.

Summer Care by the Numbers

Summer Care by the Numbers: About a third of children (ages 6 to 12) with working mothers are in an organized program or school during the summer; a little more than a third are in the care of relatives; 6 percent are cared for in a nonrelative's home; 8 percent are cared for in their home by a nanny or baby-sitter; and 11 percent are either alone or with a sibling younger than 13.

The average number of hours children ages 6-12 are left alone during the day triples during the summer: from 4 to 12 hours.

58% of parents say summer is the hardest time to make sure their child has things to do – the next closest is 14% for after-school hours and 13% for the weekend.

38% of parents are concerned that kids can fall behind academically in summer and a substantial number of students (56%) are interested in summer programs that help them keep up with school work.

Sources: Public Agenda: All Work and No Play?: Listening to What Kids and Parents Really Want from Out-of-School Time

The Urban Institute: What Happens When the School Year Is Over? The Use and Costs of Child Care for School-Age Children during the Summer Months

Responding to demand, Harlem RBI eventually became a free, full-day youth enrichment program combining baseball, teamwork and literacy education for low income families. The effort paid off. Last year, 86 percent of the youth improved their reading scores or kept them constant, showing no summer learning loss.

Closing the summer achievement gap doesn't mean warehousing poor kids in summer school, McLaughlin said. On the contrary, successful summer learning programs recognize the enrichment potential of sports and nature walks, as well as ineffable summertime activities such as splashing around at the local pool and playing a game of catch. "Summer learning bridges the world of youth development and academics," McLaughlin said.

The three other Center for Summer Learning award winners were Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), based in Boston, Mass., Higher Achievement in Washington D.C., and Trail Blazers from Montague, N.J.

Unlike public school programs, summer camps for low-income families must rely on foundations and other private donations for operating costs, which usually run about $1000 per child for a 4-6 week program. To offset costs and catalyze the creation of more programs, communities should seek out partnerships with school districts, McLaughlin advised. CSL itself runs a summer program, Teach Baltimore, in a building provided by the local school district.

The most important step is raising awareness of the summer child care crisis among policy makers. Last November, Senators Barack Obama and Barbara Milkuski introduced the Step Up Act (Summer Term Education Programs), which would authorize resources to provide students with opportunities for summer learning through grants. "We're pushing people to give summer the attention it deserves," McLaughlin said.

Linda Baker is a journalist based in Portland, Ore.





<p>I am a single mother with 3 children.&nbsp; I have a 12 year old daughter that wants to go to summer camp but there is no way I can afford it.&nbsp; She is a great kid and I would love to do this for her but can&;t.&nbsp; Please help!</p>

<p>i am looking for a camp that can help with the money.I am 33 disabled and get ssi.i have a 13 year old son that would love something like this so please snd me some info. thanks.</p>

please send me information on your summer camps for low income families, i have 3 children and would like to enroll them in summer camos rather than leave them home with a sitter.

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