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Continue the learning – keeping students engaged throughout the summer months

by Melanie McClintock, Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence

Summertime is a good news, bad news time of year. For children, it means no school and, too often, no responsibilities while parents agonize about how to keep their children occupied and challenged through the long, hot summer months.

And then there are the teachers who worry about the loss of learning that occurs over the summer when most students spend their time away from new and engaging learning activities.

With all that is required for a child to be academically prepared for the fall, many parents look to summer programs to play an increasingly important role in adding to or complementing the academic and personal skills children developed during the formal school year.

No longer simply safe places to fill time, quality summer youth programs, like most quality school-year youth programs, can lead to:

• increased academic achievement in reading and math
• higher self esteem
• improved school attendance
• higher levels of student engagement and motivation to learn
• increased likelihood of high school graduation, and
• reduced delinquency

Of course, summertime poses a different, but equally challenging dynamic. Because summer programs are typically half day or full day over a shorter period of time, more careful and intentional programming is required to ensure quality.

That’s what makes choosing the right program for a child, particularly in the summer months, so critical to their ongoing growth and successful development. Any decisions should be guided by the understanding that summer youth programs, as part of the overall learning spectrum, are valuable and vital components of an integrated educational continuum and a vital cog in the overall development of children and youth.

To that end, in addition to educationally-based programs that are an extension of the school-year curriculum, parents have other options in summer programming: a thematic program can affirm a child’s interest in a specific subject or area, like the arts; or can expose a child to a new interest or activity allowing the child to see if they have an interest or an aptitude for it.

Among the most important factors in considering what program to choose:

Intentional programming: A strategically designed summer youth program should be multi-dimensional with a specific goal or objective intended for each activity. Activities should be designed to promote successful personal growth from social and team-building skills to discipline and time management.

Diverse activities: A broad menu of activities in a nurturing, experiential learning environment gives children the opportunity to explore and sample a range of activities and subject areas to see what engages, interests and challenges them at the same time they’re having fun. A quality program engages children in activities that they may not be familiar with and think they may not like.

In addition to the programming itself, parents should be aware of the complementary value that certain activities may provide. Studies consistently point to the correlation between drawing, painting and drama creativity and creative expression; music and chess and their relationship to math reasoning; puzzles in developing problem-solving skills and even Legos in nurturing technology, engineering and math concepts.

Parent engagement: The most successful programs are partnerships between parents and program administrators. Be sure program staff are not just caretakers, but will spend time getting to know your child so programming addresses or complements their strengths, weaknesses and needs. For example, if your child is shy, will the staff work with him or her to be more confident and at ease interacting with other children. At the heart of any good youth program is a nurturing adult that makes your child feel important and cared about.

And then, there are these steps:

• Ask a lot of questions. Talk to administrators, staff and other parents.

• Ask your friends or colleagues about summer programs they’re familiar with.

• Talk to your child. Their perspective is as important as any in the decision-making process, particularly after they’ve had a chance to experience the program for a few days.

Finding and choosing a summer program can be overwhelming. With the right tools, insight and information, the process – and the results – will be worth the effort.

Melanie McClintock is Executive Director of Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence. For more information about quality summer and after school programming in Arizona, visit www.azafterschool.org.

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