This report examines the experience of summertime for children and youth from the summer before kindergarten through grade 12, including its effects on their development, their access to and participation in summertime programs and activities, and the effectiveness of existing programs. Considered as the period that falls between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, summertime was once thought of as a carefree time for children, including freedom from schooling.
While this remains the case for the vast majority of this population, some children and youth do experience alternatives to traditional schooling during the summertime period. For example, year-round schools accounted for 3,700 of 90,000 public schools in 2011–2012,1 and 1.7 million out of 56.5 million school-age children were home-schooled in 2016. Although such alternatives to traditional schooling and school calendars have become increasingly popular, there is not a deep body of research by which to judge their effectiveness.2 Moreover, there is too little available research on the developmental outcomes of these alternatives that would satisfy the evidence standards the committee has adopted to inform the central issues of this report.
1 Year-round schools follow a modified school year calendar that maintains the traditional number of school days broken up by several short breaks in the calendar rather than a single, long summer break.
2 Charter schools would be included as an alternative, but most charter schools follow the traditional calendar. In 2016, 4.6% of children in public schools attended charter schools.
Recently there has been a growing awareness of the “summer slide” (Alexander et al., 2016), that is, the fact that children forget some of what they learned in one school year by the time they begin the next one. At the same time, there has been growing attention to the needs of children that extend well beyond schooling and the traditional school calendar year. How children and youth spend their time during the summer months can affect their health, well-being, educational attainment, and future college and career readiness (Alexander et al., 2016). The socioecological context of the lives of school-age children and youth and the settings where summer programs are offered provide diverse opportunities to meet children’s developmental needs, promote their health and well-being, and advance their educational attainment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
Summertime provides a special opportunity for families, schools, communities, and other sectors to work together to provide programs and services that promote technical and social skills development and advance learning as well as promoting healthy lifestyles and behaviors. It is an opportunity to deliver services and programming that children and adolescents might not otherwise have access to during the school year. Summertime also presents children, youth, and families with an opportunity to play a larger role in deciding how they wish to spend their time, whether that be in structured or unstructured activities. At the same time, for some children it presents risks: reductions in supervised activities and structured time during summertime can cause negative changes in cognitive development and increases in negative risky behaviors, such as smoking, substance abuse, criminal activity, and participation in injury-prone activities (Jesperson et al., 2014; Loder et al., 2012).
A developmental assets framework is useful for thinking about young people’s summertime experiences, because it highlights the opportunity for summer programs and experiences to provide external assets and to foster the internal assets of children and youth through supportive and enriching experiences. This last point is critical when considering the role of summertime in either reinforcing or redressing inequities. By contrast, a focus on family, parental, and individual factors in isolation fails to adequately characterize the unequal distribution of threats to learning, health, development, and safety across children, families, and communities in the United States.
Within communities, barriers to accessing public and private services and institutions can affect some groups of children disproportionately, including children affected by parental incarceration, children experiencing homelessness, children with high rates of exposure to police, and children
involved in the juvenile justice, foster care, or child welfare systems. At the same time, in many communities access to developmentally supportive and enriching summer experiences is dependent on parents’ financial standing. As a result, summertime can increase inequity if children from wealthier backgrounds who live in better-served communities participate in such experiences while their peers from less financially secure families and underserved communities (i.e., communities where they may face barriers to accessing resources and services) do not.
Thus, for a wide variety of developmental needs and outcomes, summertime widens the gaps between children and youth in underserved communities and their peers in well-served communities. Yet this period also presents opportunities to close these gaps. Viewed through an equity frame, summer provides an opportunity for communities to ensure that all youth have access to experiences and settings that support their developmental assets.
Recognizing the key role of summertime in children’s development and the inequities in children’s summertime opportunities, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Wallace Foundation provided support to create the Committee on Summertime Experiences and Child and Adolescent Education, Health, and Safety to undertake a study of summertime experiences. The committee was charged with reviewing and evaluating available evidence on, and making recommendations for improving, the access to, participation in, and effectiveness of programs and activities for all children and youth in four areas: academic learning and enrichment; social and emotional development; physical and mental health; and safety, risk-taking, and anti- and pro-social behaviors. The full Statement of Task for the committee appears in Box 1-1.
The social, economic, and physical environments in which children live either promote or limit their summertime opportunities for positive development, healthy behaviors, safety, and well-being. These environments can be viewed as a large system composed of multiple sectors or subsystems, such as education, transportation, child welfare, public safety and criminal justice, each containing its actors or agents. In a systems perspective, “agent” refers to people or entities associated with a specific sector or subsystem within a system. Examples include but are not limited to parents (families), teachers (education), police (public safety), summer camp counselors (summer camp sector), and mayors (city government). Concepts derived from
systems dynamics—such as feedback loops, reciprocal actions, delayed effects, consequences (intended and unanticipated), and nonlinear effects—are useful in helping to understand the developmental and health outcomes of children’s summertime experiences (see Figure 1-1).
The committee uses a systems perspective, when appropriate, for examining outcomes and improvement opportunities in the four outcome domains of interest for children and youth during summertime. This approach captures the connectedness of the time periods preceding and following summertime in terms of outcomes and opportunities, as well as the interactions among sectors or subsystems and agents capable of affecting summertime experiences. It promotes a better understanding of the ways fragmented summer programming delivered by multiple, disconnected sectors may affect specific outcomes. The systems perspective can help identify targets for improvement as well as potential interactions between sectors and agents and the effects thereof, which can help frame potential recommendations.
A systems perspective also aims to be comprehensive. It accounts for funding and direct programming delivered through public (government), commercial, and nonprofit organizations, including nonprofit intermediaries operating between funders and service delivery entities. This approach also facilitates the characterization of key attributes of sectors and agents, such as funding models, types and forms of services, access and availability, target populations, and disparate effects. In addition, it acknowledges both self-directed and family-directed summertime experiences as important dimensions of a young person’s life.
Finally, the systems perspective that frames this committee’s work directs attention to the multiplicity of intersecting social contexts that pose barriers and present opportunities to the healthy academic and social and emotional development of many of our nation’s neediest children.
The Summer Months and Opportunities to Learn
The amount of time students have for their summer break is dictated by the academic calendars in their respective states and districts because public education policy and practice in the United States is largely determined at the state and local level. Delegating authority to the local level allows for variation in the design and delivery of public education across the nation’s 50 states and more than 13,000 school districts, but it also can exacerbate differences in opportunities for children.
Most school districts still maintain mandatory summer remedial programs for students at risk of grade retention or, in the upper grades, credit
recovery for courses not passed, but district-run programs for enrichment and acceleration are less common. Summertime learning and enrichment are generally governed by the resources available to children through their parents and in their local communities, resources that are more abundant for children in more advantaged families and communities. These opportunities include skill-building in camps and other programs, sports and recreation, and travel, as well as ready access to resources needed to meet their basic needs, such as adequate food and nutrition and safe environments. In contrast, many poor, disadvantaged, and minority children and youth lack access to the resources and opportunities that could keep them moving ahead academically in the absence of school. Further, these children also often face intensified food insecurity, less than adequate access to the nutrition needed for healthy growth and development, aggressive policing, and exposure to unsafe and violent neighborhoods.
The charge to this committee asks whether summertime stands out as contributing distinctively to the latter children’s challenges, as well as whether summertime offers distinctive opportunities for children that can propel them along healthy developmental trajectories. While access to high-quality summer learning opportunities and other structured programs will not be a panacea for overcoming the weight of disadvantage, it can be a helpful step forward.
The 13-member study committee included individuals with expertise in education, juvenile justice, medicine, business, out-of-school time programming, psychology, public health, public policy, sociology, summer learning, urban planning, and youth development (see Appendix D for biographical sketches of committee members and staff). The committee met in person five times and held one public information-gathering session as part of its data collection process.
During the committee’s public information-gathering session, members heard from experts in rural health, programs and policy, human services and justice, American Indian health, and 4-H programs who discussed the summertime experiences of children and adolescents in rural communities. The committee also heard from people working in the private sector—in entertainment and hospitality (Walt Disney Parks and Resorts), for-profit summer camps (Camp Champions), and corporate community-based programs (Campbell Soup Foundation). They discussed strategies for engaging the private sector to improve summertime experiences.
The committee undertook an extensive review of the literature related to the questions outlined in the Statement of Task. This review included searches of online databases, reviews of other relevant reports of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and information requests to
stakeholder groups. The committee also received memos from knowledgeable stakeholder organizations and gathered information from federal, state, and municipal entities on programs and policies relevant to summertime opportunities for children and youth. In addition to published literature and research, the committee commissioned papers on international programs and policies on summertime activities for children and youth and on juvenile justice, child welfare, policing, and the impact of geography and the built environment on summertime experiences.
There are varied definitions of two of the key terms that are found in the literature pertaining to this study’s population and the many factors that affect their summertime experiences. Those terms relate to the population of children and youth and to poverty and socioeconomic status.
Children, Youth, and Adolescents
The charge to the committee specifies school-age children, specifically, rising kindergarten (i.e., the summer before kindergarten) through grade 12. There are no datasets that use precisely that grade range, so the committee had to determine how to adjust the available data. For example, many datasets use the age range of 5–18 for children, which is close to the specified range: some rising kindergarten children may be younger than age 5, and some grade 12 students may be older than age 18. Other datasets use K–12 to define school-age children, which is also close to the specified range. More problematic is the definition of “children” as anyone from birth to age 18; for these datasets, the committee has had to determine their applicability to the specified group.
Within the category of children, youth, and adolescents, there are various definitions of early childhood and middle childhood, such as ages 3–8 and ages 9–11, respectively. There are also various definitions of adolescence, such as early (up to age 14), middle (ages 15–17), and late adolescence/early adulthood (ages 18–24). In these schemas, early childhood overlaps the preschool, kindergarten, and early elementary school years; middle childhood overlaps the later years of elementary school; and adolescence overlaps the usual middle school grade structure (grades 6–8) through high school. This correspondence is only approximate, as are the age boundaries used to distinguish periods of key physical and cognitive developmental milestones.
In this report, the committee uses the terms “childhood” for grades K–5 and “adolescence” or “youth” for grades 6–12, unless the research being cited uses other ranges.
Poverty and Socioeconomic Status
Many of the terms used to describe conditions of poverty—such as low income or concentrated poverty—are based on the officially designated poverty line. For 2019, that amount was $12,490 for an individual, with increases of $4,420 for each additional person in a household (with slightly different rates for Alaska and Hawaii) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019). Three terms are often used in writing about poverty:
- near poverty: above the poverty line but less than 150 percent of the poverty line (though some sources use an upper limit of 200 percent of the poverty line);
- poverty: not more than 100 percent of the poverty line; and
- deep poverty: 50 percent or less of the poverty line.
The commonly used terms “low income” and “lower income” (families or households) usually refer to incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line, though they may be used more broadly to refer to all incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line.
In this report, the committee follows the general practice of using “poor” to encompass individuals, households, and families whose incomes are up to 200 percent of the poverty line, unless a particular dataset uses other criteria.
For geographic designations, poverty areas are those in which at least 20 percent of residents are poor, and extreme or concentrated poverty areas are those in which at least 40 percent of residents are poor. Such areas, neighborhoods, or communities often are characterized as distressed areas or areas of concentrated poverty.
For socioeconomic status (SES), there are no generally agreed-upon criteria for distinguishing among discrete levels. Accordingly, such distinctions connote relative standing, such as lower or higher SES. This report uses those terms.
Following this Introduction, Chapter 2 details the summertime experiences of the nation’s school-age children. Chapter 3 looks at the effects of those summertime experiences on children’s development, Chapter 4 examines what we know about the effectiveness of summer programming, and Chapter 5 turns to the effects of children’s circumstances on their summer experiences. In those last three chapters, we follow a youth development approach to address the statement of task requirements by providing
responses to questions of quality, availability, access, and equity in the four domains of interest: academic learning and opportunities for enrichment; social and emotional development; physical and mental health and health-promoting behaviors; and safety, risk-taking, and anti- and prosocial behavior. Chapter 6 presents our conclusions and identifies opportunities for improvement and innovations by offering recommendations for policy, practice, and future research.
Alexander, K., Pitcock, S., and Boulay, M. C. (Eds.). (2016). The Summer Slide: What We Know and Can Do About Summer Learning Loss. New York: Teachers College Press.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). CDC Programs Addressing Social Determinants of Health. Atlanta, GA: Author. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/socialdeterminants/cdcprograms/index.htm.
Jespersen, E., Holst, R., Franz, C., Rexen, C. T., and Wedderkopp, N. (2014). Seasonal variation in musculoskeletal extremity injuries in school children aged 6–12 followed prospectively over 2.5 years: A cohort study. BMJ Open, 4(1), e004165.
Loder, R. T., Krodel, E., and D’Amico, K. (2012). Temporal variation in pediatric supracondylar humerus fractures requiring surgical intervention. Journal of Children’s Orthopaedics 6(5), 419–425. doi:10.1007/s11832-012-0430-2.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines. Available: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/02/01/2019-00621/annual-update-of-the-hhs-poverty-guidelines.
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