Imagine a child cooped up inside a stuffy apartment building on a beautiful, sunny day because there's no safe place to play outside. She has only unhealthy processed and fast foods to eat. This image is far removed from the nostalgic picture of a childhood summer filled with fun family vacations and camps. But for too many children, it is a reality that directly affects how ready they will be to move ahead in the classroom come September.
Children learn best when they're healthy. Research – and common sense – point to a relationship between nutrition, healthy weight, and the ability to learn. Research also shows that most children lose as much as two months of grade-level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer and low-income children lose two to three months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers make slight gains.
Risk for obesity and food insecurity also rises in the summer. Without the structure and physical activity of school, low-income youth are at a significant disadvantage, often unable to take part in high-quality summer camps and enrichment programs. Stuck in homes with little academic and physical stimulation, the skills they learned in school slide—and so does their health.
Only one in seven low-income students who relied on the National School Lunch Program during the 2010-2011 school year had access to similar meals during the following summer. Without the balanced meals so important in promoting brain development and cognitive function, these children are at risk for unhealthy weight gain and obesity.
A recent report, “Healthy Summers for Kids: Turning Risk Into Opportunity,” outlines some of the promising, low-cost programs that can stem summer learning loss and provide tools for a healthy, active lifestyle for kids. Here are highlights from a few innovative initiatives:
- Learning to swim. At the Horizons program, learning to swim is not only a way to stay active and engaged, but it also introduces students to a competitive sport and teaches them skills for summer employment. For some students, overcoming fear of the water leads to gains in self-esteem, resourcefulness, and sound judgment.
- Mentoring a peer. The Get Out, Get Fit Summer Youth Camp of Watsonville, Calif., offers high school students a chance to mentor middle school participants, addressing such topics as preparing wholesome snacks and reading nutrition labels, as well as recognizing the effects of media and advertising on choosing healthy foods.
- Cooking for health. From learning to identify key nutrients and their functions in the human body to exploring foods from Greece and Egypt, students in programs involved in the Summer Matters Campaign recognize that learning and eating healthy meals go hand in hand.
As students head back to school, those who have experienced programs like these will return ready to learn and succeed. Let's do more to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to thrive – intellectually and physically – during the summer.
Gary Huggins is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Summer Learning Association, a national nonprofit organization that works to increase access to high-quality summer learning programs to reduce the achievement gap.