Why summer programs are critical for children's development
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do with Jonah. Today is the last day of his afterschool program, but there are still two weeks before school is out. And then what am I going to do until September?”
It’s early June and I’m catching up with my coworker, Karen. Every summer, she scrambles to find activities to keep her 13-year-old son Jonah safe, happy, and healthy while she is at work all day. After years of arranging summer care—a logistical and financial nightmare—she’s debating whether she can finally leave him at home this year. Karen recently told me that she worries her son may not be quite ready to stay home alone, but she doesn’t have many affordable summer care options for Jonah.
High quality child care is a year-round necessity, especially today when two out of three children have all available parents in the workforce. But as any parent knows, high quality child care is expensive and hard to find. Indeed, a recent analysis from Center for American Progress (CAP) shows that the average family spends over $3,000 on summer programs for two children, representing 20 percent of a typical family’s income for the entire summer. And this is just for programming for half of the summer!
When summer care is unaffordable, parents must piece together care from family members or friends, coordinate pick-up and drop-off across several cheaper options, or occasionally leave children unsupervised or in their older siblings’ care. Research shows the share of children without regular child care increases during the summer, as does the share of children in unsupervised “self-care.” In addition to being stressful for parents, these care arrangements can undermine children’s learning and development.
Having a consistent care arrangement is important for young children’s behavioral and social development, and for learning. That’s because children’s early learning and development happens so quickly that when they lack consistent care and education arrangements, adults may miss opportunities to build on children’s emerging skills. Imagine a preschooler who spends several weeks with an attentive caregiver who reads to her daily. She develops early literacy skills, exercising her new vocabulary and demonstrating a serious interest in books. If she stays with this caregiver, she may progress to telling simple stories or pretend “reading.” But what happens if her family can no longer afford this care and she spends the next month watching TV in the care of an older sibling or babysitter? These skills stagnate and can quickly backslide, causing what some researcher have termed the “summer slide.”
Similarly, leaving some older children unsupervised may not be developmentally appropriate or safe. Karen knows this well. Although her son Jonah is quiet and thoughtful, he can also be impulsive or distracted in the way of boys his age. One afternoon, Jonah was preparing a snack when he left the hot oven unattended to play video games in the other room. Luckily, Karen was home to turn off the oven. But Karen sees this as a sign that he’s not quite ready to stay at home alone.
Jonah’s distractibility is normal for his age; as a young teenager, he still lacks fully-developed executive function skills. Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that underpin our ability to plan, focus our attention on tasks, and resist temptation—including video games.
With summer upon us, parents like Karen have their work cut out for them. What was once a season of long, carefree days is anything but relaxing for today’s families.
Fortunately, Congress has a bill that can help parents secure the care they—and their children—need to thrive. The Child Care for Working Families Act—introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA)— puts high-quality, affordable child care within reach for families all year long, including the during the summer months. This bill guarantees child care assistance for families with children age 13 and under and ensures that no one pays more than seven percent of their income for child care. It would mean parents can afford the continuous, high quality programming children need to develop positive social relationships, build on critical cognitive and academic skills during the summer, and remain in safe, supervised care until they are ready to be on their own.
Families like Karen and Jonah deserve as much.