Conventional wisdom says this is the time of year when students put away their sneakers and pick up their schoolbooks, leaving behind a summer filled with sports and physical activity to begin a school year that will force them into a more sedentary lifestyle.
To a considerable extent, that impression is based on facts. The growing emphasis on testing has caused school districts nationwide to reduce — or even end — time devoted to gym and recess, and tight budgets have led many to adopt pay-to-play requirements for students interested in joining teams. That has conspired to reduce opportunities for physical activity for children from lower-income families during the school year, contributing to the country’s epidemic of childhood obesity.
But the other side of that coin, what happens each May or June, also is problematic. Leaving academics behind during the summer puts children at risk for falling behind. While higher-income families can provide their children with academically stimulating activities during the summer, many working parents have neither the time nor the resources to do so. That is why summer learning loss has emerged as a serious problem. Research shows that students from low-income families typically lose two to three months in reading achievement and two months of math skills during the summer months. That achievement gap is terribly costly — but can be avoided.
Quality after-school programs, many of which morph into summer learning programs when the thermometer climbs each year, can be a big part of the solution. These programs help alleviate community problems by providing a balance of enriching academic and physical activities for students throughout the year. With their emphasis on hands-on learning, teamwork and serving the whole child, quality after-school and summer learning programs offer the kind of balance all students need to learn and thrive.
During the school year, after-school programs provide opportunities for physical activity. Research commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance found that 80 percent of parents with a child in an after-school program say the program provides opportunities for physical activity, and among those parents, 84 percent are satisfied with those opportunities.
And during the summer, these programs offer opportunities for hands-on activities that inspire students to learn. Nothing says that better than some examples. This summer, an after-school program in Walla Walla, Wash., ran a Game Theory and 3D Printing Camp at which students created their own board games, designing and printing 3D game pieces. A New Hampshire after-school program held a Summer Literacy Carnival that included bowling, volleyball, sack races and more, and sent each child home with free books.
An Arkansas program ran Feed Your Brain/Alimenta Tu Cerebro, a bilingual summer reading program, at two elementary schools and an apartment complex. An Alabama program brought students to a teaching farm, where they learned about ecosystems and financial literacy, operating a farmer’s market to sell the produce they helped to grow. Students need this kind of engaged learning that keeps them active during the school year, as well as the summer.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough summer learning programs to meet demand. While more than half of parents say they would like their child to participate, just one-third report having at least one child in a summer learning program. By failing to create, fund and sustain these programs, we’re forfeiting the chance to prevent summer learning loss and deepening the achievement gap that makes it different for some children to learn what they need to know to succeed in school and in life.
Nor are there enough after-school programs to meet demand during the school year. For every child in an after-school program in the United States today, there are two more whose parents would enroll them if a program were available. By failing to provide enough after-school programs during the school year, we’re missing opportunities to keep our children active and engaged each afternoon, after the school day ends.
Quality after-school and summer learning programs are turning conventional wisdom on its head by helping to keep students academically engaged and physically active all year long. But every child in every community deserves the opportunities these programs can provide, and we are far from that today. Getting there will require all of us to become advocates, sharing our successes and pressing for the government, business and philanthropic support that will allow us to create and sustain the after-school and summer learning programs our children need and deserve.
Jodi Grant is executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit public awareness and advocacy organization working to ensure that all children and youth have access to quality after-school programs.
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