08/01/2011 05:55 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2011

Thinking Outside the Sandbox on Avoiding the Summer Slide

When I was a kid, I didn't attend summer camps. Instead, my parents took me to the library or to local art, history and science museums on free admission days. We spent lots of time at local parks, exploring the miles of trails within, trying to figure out the types of trees, plants or bugs we saw. This kind of enrichment was free or low-cost, and it exposed me to new vocabulary and experiences and helped to ward off summer learning loss.

According to a study by the RAND Corporation, on average, students regress about a month during summer break. But for children from low-income families it can be even more, especially when it comes to reading growth. And over time, this phenomenon snowballs and increases the learning gap between children from higher income families and children from lower income families.

Cities and states can narrow that gap by providing parents with lots of free and low-cost learning opportunities for their students who attend K-12 public schools and young children who attend preschool programs during the year. (Preschool programs usually shut their doors in May too.)

But today's budget crunches are closing the door on many of those options, especially in urban communities.

According to the American Library Association, 55 percent of urban libraries reported cuts to their operating budgets during the current fiscal year. And the Mayor of Miami-Dade County in Florida just released a budget proposal that would close 13 public libraries.

State parks are reducing hours or closing too. In California, for example, officials plan to close about 70 parks. In other local communities, officials have been forced to consider charging or increasing fees for individuals who use parks and recreation centers or closing amenities like swimming pools and educational resources like nature centers.

The same is true for museums. Many of Louisiana's historic sites and museums will have reduced hours. In Texas, arts and cultural centers are preparing to be hit.

Stories like this are becoming more and more common across the country. Some communities are getting creative, seeking more volunteers to assist with things like park maintenance or museum staffing.

Perhaps there are other ways to get more bang for the few bucks available right now. Cities and libraries, for example, or community-based organizations and museums, for another, could collaborate on summer opportunities to serve more children or expand programming by leveraging local, state, philanthropic and even federal dollars. Another option is to reach out to the local community to determine what the needs are. Thinking more about libraries, if a community is home to mostly families with children under 5 but the library offers equal programming for older and younger children, there may be adjustments that could be made. And if a fee structure for parks and other facilities is imposed, a sliding scale based on income should be considered.

There are ways to reduce the effect of the summer learning slide and give kids a leg up for the next school year. States and local governments should try, of course, to avoid cuts to these opportunities that help to level the playing field for kids. But budget crises don't have to sunset free and low-cost summer learning opportunities. It may just take a little creative thinking to keep them going -- something to consider when planning begins for next summer.