07/28/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Survey Finds Support and Need for Summer Learning Programs

I associate summer with children playing outside -- riding bicycles, running through sprinklers, racing in and out of the house to grab snacks. Unfortunately, there's another event that happens during the summer that is much less joyous; it's called "summer learning loss" and it affects millions of our nation's children.

This phenomenon has been identified by researchers who have determined that elementary, middle and high school students actually lose ground on what they've learned in school during the summer months. It happens because they're no longer in an academic environment, and their brains are focused on other things.

Certainly, students have earned a break after nine months in school -- as have their teachers. But for a lot of children, and particularly those from low-income neighborhoods with fewer opportunities available to them, the summer months can be a time of sliding backwards academically, losing ground to some of their classmates, forgetting concepts and information upon which the new school year's lessons will be built.

Research tells us the phenomenon is real, but it also tells us that it can be defeated, simply by engaging children's brains during the summer months.

As more and more educators, policymakers and parents recognize this, summer learning programs are picking up steam. Such programs are a lot like after school programs -- in fact, many of them are after school programs that morph into summer programs once the final school bell sounds at the end of the year. They're at schools, YMCAs, houses of worship, science and community centers and elsewhere. They offer a mix of activities that include academics, sports and other physical activity; brain-challenges like rocketry and robotics; art and music; and much more.

According to a recently released "sneak peak" at survey data from the Afterschool Alliance's forthcoming America After 3p.m. report, 33 percent of families report that at least one of their children participated in a summer learning program last year, up from 25 percent in 2009. Looking to this summer, more than half (51 percent) of families surveyed said they want their children to participate in summer learning programs.

On the public policy front, summer learning programs draw resounding support from parents. Eighty six percent say they support public funding for summer learning programs. Such funding is crucial, because while 13 percent of families reported that their children's summer programs were offered at no cost, the weekly fee for those who did pay averaged $250, a price steep enough to be out of reach for many children's families.

That 86 percent figure is an eye-popping number, and it's one my colleagues and I at the Afterschool Alliance plan to share with policymakers as we encourage them to provide more resources for these essential programs.

I am a working mom, and I am lucky enough to be able to pay for my daughters to go to fun, educational summer learning programs where they learn computer skills, enjoy the outdoors, perform Shakespeare, and much more. It would be an incredibly wise national investment to keep all our children engaged and active during the summer months, so we can stave off summer learning loss.

More information about the new data is available online.

The 2014 "America After 3p.m." research and forthcoming report are funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Wallace Foundation and the Noyce Foundation, with additional support from the Heinz Endowments, Samueli Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. In October, the full report on afterschool programs, including details on how participation and demand for afterschool vary among income levels, ethnicity, state of residence and more will be available. In addition, for the first time ever, data on STEM, as well as detailed information on physical activity, in afterschool will be included in the "America After 3PM" report.