Study at home

New research suggests it’s family involvement, Not just camps or trips, That keeps kids primed for learning all summer

Where’s the best place for summer learning? (Hint: Don’t look far.)

As the achievement gap has widened over the past quarter century, educators have increasingly focused on summer pastimes as both a key factor and a solution. Higher-income children are more likely to fill their days with outdoorsy camps, music and coding classes, and travel. Making those experiences more accessible to and commonplace for all children, the theory goes, can help ensure that low-income kids keep learning at the same rate.

But time spent at home, reading independently or talking about books and stories with parents, seems to have a greater influence on children’s academic growth than summer camps or vacations, new research suggests. It’s a reminder that despite the social-emotional benefits (and the fun) of camp, quiet days with family can offer valuable learning moments too.


The study, conducted by education policy researcher Kathleen Lynch, parses out how various summer activities, such as attending camp, reading and talking about math at home, vacations and daytrips, and summer school, have distinct academic effects. It suggests that families of all socioeconomic backgrounds have made strides in creating an enriching summer for their children.

Lynch looked at two cohorts of kindergarten-age children, one from 1999 and the other from 2011. Both cohorts were nationally representative and included more than 4,000 students. The study examined the relationship between summer activities and socioeconomic status (SES); the relationship between summer activities and literacy and math scores; and whether SES-related gaps in summer activities changed between 1999 and 2011.

It found that the gap between the number of high- and low-income children who attend camp (here, defined as non-school-based summer programs) and visit new places has increased over time:

  • The proportion of high-SES children attending camp increased from about 40 to 53 percent, whereas the proportion of low-SES children decreased from about 9 to 6 percent.
  • High-SES children were increasingly more likely to visit to museums, zoos and aquariums, new cities, amusements parks, and beaches and lakes. Low-SES children were increasingly more likely to spend more time at home watching television or playing computer games.