Carlos Gray was less than thrilled when he figured out that the Northeast Baltimore camp program his mother runs was trying to sneak school work into fun.
But by the end of last summer, after answering questions like "What's 5 times 5?" every time he caught a beach ball from a friend, Carlos knew his multiplication tables and was ready to start third grade.
The beach-ball math game is one way that camps, parents and school systems are trying to fight the "summer slide." Research shows that without reinforcement over the summer of what they've learned, students can lose up to two months of skills in reading and math by the time they head back to school in the fall.
Over time, summer learning loss can cause children to fall chronically behind. It's said to explain part of the disparity in academic performance between children from middle- and high-income families -- who can attend pricey themed camps and take field trips and vacations to destinations rich in history -- and their lower-income peers.
In math, however, it's not unusual for students to lose two months' worth of competency over the summer, regardless of their family's socioeconomic status.
"If kids don't use it, they're at risk of losing it," said Ron Fairchild, executive director of the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.
Day camps have multiplied, and deepened their offerings, to address both learning loss and the needs of working parents. There are 5,000 day camps in the U.S., a 90 percent increase in the last 20 years, according to the American Camp Association. But all that activity doesn't come cheap: The cost of such camps across the nation ranges from $75 to $300 a week, the association reports.
In the Baltimore area, students can sharpen lacrosse skills at a camp in Gambrills, spend a week shadowing zookeepers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, and learn etiquette at a regional program called "Manners Can Be Fun!" Jamillah Nasir will send her 7- and 8-year-old daughters, Rakaya and Imani, to a month-long Brazilian carnival camp in Baltimore that teaches capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that mixes self-defense with African dance and acrobatics.
"I wanted them to be able to know all of the cultures of people of African descent," said Nasir, who lives in Edmondson Village and home-schools the children. "We read and talk about these things all the time."
At Fitness Fun & Games, the Northeast Baltimore camp where Carlos Gray's mother, Angie Gray, is assistant director, academics have taken a more formal role in the last three years. Now a city teacher, she spends part of each morning going over lessons with students. But they have fun, too: Cookie baking, for example, turns into a study of measurements.
Carlos, 9, has to admit he kind of enjoys activities like "math hopscotch."
"It's kind of like recess," he said.
Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology at Duke University who has studied summer learning loss, says math is the most important area for parents and programs to focus on over the summer. "Math practice is not naturally embedded in the child's environment, so parents need to make a conscious effort," he said.
Cooper advises parents not only to help their children review the past year, but to look forward to the next. They should visit the school to get a preview of what will be covered early in the fall, and let students know what to expect. Parents should target a child's strengths as well as weaknesses, Cooper said. They might hire a tutor to help a boy who is behind in math, but also send him to acting camp to nurture his love of the theater.
Sometimes summer learning is more fun if kids teach each other. At Fitness Fun & Games, students take turns playing teacher to review what they've learned. Jamillah Nasir has hired a 10-year-old math whiz who is a family friend to run math drills with her girls twice a week.
Baltimore school and city officials are trying to fight the slide by increasing school-sponsored summer programs and offering tools like the Mayor's Math Challenge, a series of practice problems that students can work on with their parents at home. They're also offering a summer "bridge" program designed to help students make the important transitions from kindergarten to first grade, fifth to sixth grade and eighth to ninth grade.
"We don't want to slide," Mayor Martin O'Malley told a group of elementary students as he launched the challenge earlier this month. "We want to accelerate."
But the math challenge illustrates the difficulty of keeping families focused on school work when school is out. Participation last year -- the first year of the program -- was not what was hoped for, partly because some parents had a difficult time explaining the problems, said Erin Coleman, after-school strategist with the Safe and Sound campaign. This year, there's a "working together guide" to help parents, and problems are divided into grade levels.
School officials also are encouraging families to sign up for the Enoch Pratt Free Library's summer reading program, called "Wild About Reading." This year's program offers incentives like a bracelet, a party and a ticket to an Orioles game for students who reach milestones along the way to finishing eight books by the end of the season. Students 9 and over who register for the program will receive a free copy of Holes by Louis Sachar, this year's "Baltimore's Book" selection.
Ellen Riordan, the library system's coordinator of children's services, said that participation in the program starts to drop off at about the age when kids are starting to read on their own, around the third grade. She recommends that parents keep reading aloud at that stage, especially if reading hasn't come easily to their children, to "enhance what I call the intrinsic motivation of reading."
She also advises parents to encourage their children to read something this summer that will give them a sense of confidence. "Once your assignments are complete, I think reading an easy book or two is a good thing," Riordan said. "Sometimes children want to relax, too."
Natalie Holland of Mount Washington made sure to register her children, Ben, 7, and Laurel, 5, for the reading program as soon as it began. Every day during the summer, the family sets aside time called "school at home" to reinforce academics. "So far, they've bought into it," said Holland, who works for a health-care company. "They know it's coming every day."
The children, who attend the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore, also will spend their days this summer with an off-duty teacher -- their aunt -- who will sneak learning into field trips around town. And the kids themselves are likely to come up with fun ways to learn, Holland said. "They dream up science experiments on their own -- seeing if tin foil will float in the sink," she said.
Strategies to stimulate young brains
The Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University offers some fun ways to keep your children learning during the summer:
Read aloud to your children every day, and have them read aloud to you.
Subscribe to magazines and newspapers and discuss current events with your children.
Praise your children for reading.
Make weekly visits to the local public library and participate in special reading summer programs that most libraries offer.
Encourage your children to watch educational television programs about science and nature. Ask them questions about what they watch.
Bake cookies to practice fractions and measuring ingredients. Make homemade ice cream and other foods to show them about the properties of salt, liquids and solids, and how to measure temperature.
Visit a local park and observe different types of rocks, animals, insects and leaves.
Use an outdoor thermometer to track weather, make predictions and observe patterns.
Plant a garden to show how seeds become plants and how fertilizer and weather can affect growth.
Check out library books that contain ideas for science experiments.
Make maps of your neighborhood and places you visit with your children.
Interview older community members about their lives and the history of the neighborhood.
Learn capitals, countries and continents by playing games and taking virtual trips online.
Take field trips to museums, botanical gardens, zoos and local history sites.
Write to local elected officials and newspaper editors about current issues.
The Mayor's Math Challenge, a series of practice problems by grade level with summer themes, can be found Fridays in the Baltimore Times news- paper, at www.btimes.com, or at www.summerlearning.org. Children who turn in their answers with an adult signature by Aug. 13 to a city library branch will receive a mayoral citation.
Scholastic has launched a special summer reading site, www.scholastic.com / summerreading, that includes book lists, offers and activities.
Reading Is Fundamental (www.rif.org) has tips for summer practice.