Season of Inequality

Exploring the Summer Activity Gap

We had sleep-away camp for two weeks—that was so great [to have the boys away]. Then Vacation Bible School for a week. Then I think we had a free week. This week, they had Boy Scout Camp and swimming lessons—next week, just swimming lessons. Then, after their grandparents come, they have Science Camp for a week. Then we all go to Hawaii for two weeks.

–Janice, a middle-class mother, explaining her children's summer

Janelle spends the day at her dad's house while her mom is at work. I ask her what she does there and she tells me in a timeline manner. She says she goes there in the morning and eats breakfast, like cereal. She takes off the "pillow" from the parakeet cage to wake up the parakeet and also feeds the dog sometimes. She plays mostly with her 14-year-old cousin. They go outside, do cartwheels or play on the scooter, then come back inside and watch music videos on the The Box channel. Because her cable's been cut off for the last two weeks, she watches shows like Boy Meets World, The Simpsons, Blind Date, Baby Blues, Drew Carey Show, Family Guy, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

–Fieldnotes from a visit with Janelle, a working-class fourth-grader

For kids, summer means freedom—freedom from teachers, homework, and report cards. But for many parents, that freedom—freedom from reliable daycare and a set curriculum—is a mixed blessing. As the anecdotes above suggest, children's summers vary dramatically. While some parents manage to provide their children with art and music lessons, athletic camps, and academic enrichment—all in three short months—others struggle just to pull their children away from the television. Five years ago, we designed a research project in response to literature on "summer loss." This research shows that while most children learn at about the same pace during the school year, poor children tend to fall behind academically during the summer months. In terms of grade-level equivalents, the reading gap between low- and middle-income children widens by more than three months.1 (For more information, see "Keep the Faucet Flowing" in the Fall 2001 issue of American Educator. Although this research shows that disadvantaged children are less likely than their middle-class peers to read over the summer, go on vacations, go to summer camp, or get music and art lessons, researchers have not been able to determine exactly why poor children fall behind their middle-class peers.

We studied the summer activities of 32 Southern Californian children who had just completed fourth grade to investigate how and why students from different social class backgrounds had disparate summer experiences.2 We found that differences in children's summer experiences resulted largely from differences in their families' financial resources, knowledge, and time—but not from a lesser desire to expose their children to enriching educational experiences. We also found that some of the most egregious summer inequalities were not explicitly academic. Rather, poor children were most disadvantaged in terms of their opportunities to develop their artistic, musical, and athletic talents and to experience new environments. (Of course, these types of disadvantages probably lead to academic disadvantages later in life because enriching experiences give children a broader base of knowledge to draw from as they confront new challenges in school.) For more information, see "Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World," in the Spring 2003 issue of American Educator.

We interviewed and observed students3 who attended a diverse urban school that enrolls children from two adjacent neighborhoods: an upper-middle-class neighborhood (with expensive homes and well-groomed yards) and a lower- to working-class neighborhood (with apartments and commercial buildings). Twenty-eight percent of the children in our study are white, 13 percent are Asian American, 25 percent are African American, and 34 percent are Latino. Half of our sample is eligible for free/reduced-priced lunch. Of these, about 20 percent are poor, with incomes below the poverty line, and the rest come from working-class families. The other half of our students come from middle-class families (in which at least one parent has a four-year college degree or a professional job). This group contains nearly equal numbers of lower-middle-, middle-, and upper-middle-class families. Many local camps and instructors cater to the upper-middle-class families, often pricing their services out of reach for even the typical middle-class family.

The fieldworkers on our research team observed all of the children at least twice over the summer (between two and 12 hours each time) and observed a third of them more than five times. Fieldworkers observed each child at least once at home and once during an "activity," (including day camp, summer school, athletic competitions, play dates, and family outings). When fieldworkers attended schools and camps, they stayed for an entire day's session. When they observed the children, they asked the kids to "do what you normally do" and, whenever they could, the fieldworkers participated in the children's activities. Fieldworkers even kept Razor Scooters in their cars so that they could ride with the kids. After their observations, fieldworkers recorded information about the children's environments, activities, and behaviors in detailed notes. Near the end of the summer, they interviewed each child and conducted informal interviews with the children's caregivers concerning their summer arrangements for their children.

Constructing a Summer

Like Matthew, whose mother, Janice, described his summer in the quote that opens this article, the upper-middle-class and middle-class children we studied tended to have varied, organized summer experiences. None of the working-class or poor children in our study had summers this full of camps, lessons, vacations, and scheduled "free time." These activities required money, time, and knowledge—and working-class and poor parents tended to have less of all of these resources.


By necessity, parents with different incomes had different priorities when choosing camps. Most parents sought camps that provided daycare while catering to their children's interests. While wealthier families could pick and choose among camps, less advantaged families often had to compromise to fit their budgets. Many of the boys in our sample attended sports camps. Two middle-class boys spent several weeks at SUPERSports camp, a sports-themed day camp, in which the kids did some coached drills, but mostly played assorted "pick-up" style games. Although the boys enjoyed SUPERSports, other parents sought out even more specialized camps. Tim's middle-class single mother sent him to a general day camp for most of the summer, but also managed four days at the local professional basketball team's camp. Brothers Sean and Kevin, whose mother was a successful artist, attended skill-focused tennis and basketball camps at a local university (C.U.). At almost $600 for each camp (which ran from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), their mother felt the money was well spent:

"The C.U. thing was a brand new thing—it was like a tryout to see if they like it or not." I asked about what she liked or disliked about the C.U. camps and she said she liked it because the boys actually learned basketball or tennis, and it wasn't just the fooling around like at SUPERSport Camp, like shooting water guns.

Lower-income families often chose free programs for the majority of the summer in order to afford a week or two at a specialized, skill-focused camp. For example, Carlos's working-class parents scrimped to send him to a pricey football camp for two weeks, but he spent the rest of the summer at a free program. However, many poor families needed help in order to attend even relatively low-cost specialized camps. For example, Terah's mother, a single mom who worked as a part-time receptionist, wanted Terah to attend music camp and found one that cost $175. She sought help from her church and ended up paying only $25 for the skill-intensive camp:

Terah tells me that twice a day she would have guitar lessons, for about an hour each lesson. They worked on songs that they would be playing in the "final concert." She also worked on reading guitar music. They were taught in a group, with individual help if one of the students wasn't following well or someone's guitar needed tuning.

Even when lower-income parents found affordable day camps, they often struggled with the camps' hours (usually 9–3). While many advantaged parents bought "extended care" or took off work early, most poor families could not afford either option. Janelle's mother, a working-class single parent, found it impossible to find an affordable camp that accommodated her work schedule:

When I ask Janelle's mom what she likes about summer vacation, she says, "I don't." I ask why and she says, "What I don't like is they have a lot of different programs, but the times don't work around the times that you work. So you have to pick 'em up at 3:00. If you're a single parent, and you work from 8 to 5, 9 to 6, it's not—it doesn't work like that.... The times are not convenient for when you actually need the kids there, especially when you don't have anybody to pick your kid up. Coastal [Community College], they had summer school, which was from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. That was the only good program that I could find. And it was academics; it wasn't all [trips to amusement parks]. They had academics. But it was something like $135 a week—and you still had to pay for lunch...."

Janelle's mother tried to find an affordable program with extended hours, but she couldn't. So, Janelle spent most of her summer watching TV, as the opening quote shows.

Lessons and Activities

In addition to camps, many wealthier families filled their children's summers with lessons and enrichment activities. For example, Sean and Kevin's mother (the successful artist) said that sending her kids to GOALS (an enrichment center with computer-based lessons) was "all I can do" to get her kids to do school-related activities over the summer:

Sean said, "We go to this place called GOALS, right. And we went with Terah once.... There's a reading adventure where there's this little robot guy, and he tells you the story you're gonna do. And then you will get to a story, then after you read it, it would ask questions about it, what happened in the story. So, we kinda read a lot." I ask how often they go to GOALS, and Kevin says they went probably twice a week. Sean disagrees and says that they probably went four to six times this summer. Sean says that if they go to GOALS eight times, then they'll get a prize from their mom—something under $30. They both said they enjoy it and that it's fun.

While Sean and Kevin's mother had the resources to make even academic practice fun, lower-income parents struggled to provide the types of enriching activities that middle-income families took for granted. Just as many poor families used their social networks to obtain discounts at camps, they also used social networks to obtain lessons. Terah got guitar lessons from her pastor (and a ride to the lessons from a family friend). Likewise, Manuel, one of the poorest students in our sample, got electric guitar lessons (and a guitar to borrow) from friends at church. Some families even used fieldworkers to gain access to activities. Kiran's mother, a recent immigrant whose family survived on her husband's busboy salary, asked us to come for an observation on a specific day at a specific time. When the fieldworker arrived, Kiran's mother (who didn't drive) asked the fieldworker to take the family to a free art lesson at the library.


Parents' budgets and schedules largely determined the extent of their family vacations. The typical vacation involved visiting family around the U.S. On the way, most parents tried to visit a cultural, historical, or scientific site (students visited places ranging from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon). The most elite vacation we heard about was Rachel's trip to Italy. Rachel wrote about Rome in her scrapbook:

Rome-Roma. Today I went to the coliseum. That's where people and lions fought against each other. There were fake gladiators hanging around the ruin.... Then we saw the brand new Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. The paintings and carvings were so unbelievable. We went to dinner with a really nice lady from Sydney named Daniella. I bought a necklace. I stayed at the Summit. I gave it a 4 (1–5). I had a great first day.

Jaycee and her parents, who worked as school custodians, also spend several weeks traveling over the summer. They drove cross-country to a family reunion, stopping at historical sites along the way. Judging from Jaycee's description, her trip rivaled Rachel's, at least in terms of its significance to a 10-year-old:

When I was in Tennessee, I saw the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated—and it's EXACTLY the same! They haven't changed anything, the pillow—even the TV is on and they don't turn it off! And I said, ‘What if the battery goes out?' and they were like, ‘That does not happen.' And we went to Elvis [sic] house... and our tour guide was this guy who was 82 years old and he knew Elvis, they rode his horses together....

Although most families tried to include an "educational" component in their vacations, not all families made this a priority. For example, when Tammy, one of our poorest children, went to Las Vegas with her mother, she spent the whole time in the hotel room watching TV with her cousins. Similarly, when Kendra's lower-middle-class mother took her to Vegas, she enrolled Kendra in a program for kids that "keeps them safe while their parents are gambling." And even when Justin's upper-middle-class family took a trip to Utah, his two weeks of swimming and riding dirt bikes with his cousins were not paired with an educational activity.

Home Environment

All children spent some of their summer at home, where almost all of the middle-class children had easy access to books, educational games, and computers. Poorer children had substantially fewer educational materials. However, poor kids who really enjoyed reading (and were good readers) found ways to read even if they did not have a lot of books at home. For example, Brian sent his mother, who worked full-time waiting tables, all over town to find a copy of the newest, sold-out, Harry Potter. Brian also enjoyed a windfall when he came across a box of library discards on the street, lugged them home, and worked his way through them all summer. But some of the lower-income children were neither so lucky nor so motivated. For example, Jaycee's working-class family had almost no books in its apartment and she spent most of the summer flipping through a book of aromatherapy recipes that she called "spells."

Most of the parents in our sample encouraged their children to do some academic activities over the summer. However, middle-class parents seemed to have more success at coaxing their children into doing academics, partly because they had the resources to arrange fun "academic" activities like book clubs and partly because they knew more about their children's academic capabilities. For example, Matthew's mother, who worked part-time as a consultant, said that she and Matthew read the fourth Harry Potter together because it helped Matthew understand the plot. Poorer parents, like Theresa's mother, a high school dropout who had just finished her GED, were less well informed:

Theresa's mother complained that Theresa did not read enough. Theresa bent her head down shyly [and said], "I do read!" and her mom said, "You do not! We spent $45 on those Harry Potter books because you promised to read them, and you haven't read them at all!"

Theresa's mother did not realize that the Harry Potter books were too difficult for Theresa, so she ended up resenting her investment in the books. She was not alone. While many lower-income parents invested in books and workbooks, and pushed their kids to practice academics, many did not have the time to follow-up or the knowledge to know exactly what help their kids needed. For example, Abel's lower-middle-class mother borrowed a fifth-grade math textbook, but let Abel choose which problems he would work on (and he always chose the easy ones). Jaycee "practiced" her division, but her mother, who did hair at home for extra income, did not notice that she was doing her practice incorrectly. And James's parents, who both cleaned houses for a living and struggled to make ends meet, nagged him to practice his times tables, but did not notice that he was missing two-thirds of the flashcards he needed to practice.

Children's Resources

Although parents tended to organize their children's summers, many of the 10-year-olds in our study had some freedom to create their own stimulation and fun (or to languish in front of the TV, if they so chose). Terah, a lower-income child, provided a quintessential example of a child who helped to construct a good summer for herself:

It was fun. It was funner than I expected 'cuz all the summers before this, like, they were boring because I didn't know, like, that Mid-City Park has a pool that you can go in for free during the summer. I thought it costed money or something. And I know more, like, friends' phone numbers and addresses or something, so I connected with them this summer.

Terah "connected" a lot. She hung out with Sean and Kevin, upper-middle-income brothers, who taught her the songs they learned in piano lessons and (as Sean mentioned) took her to GOALS, their computer-based enrichment center. She also went to concerts and made pottery with college-student neighbors she had befriended.

Even without advantaged friends, many children conjured up challenging activities. Abel and his brother, who stayed with their non-English speaking grandmother over the summer, spent afternoons trying different paper airplane designs and building Lego structures. Abel also spent hours practicing drawing by copying detailed pictures out of a "cross-section" Star Wars book. Likewise, Katie, a creative child from a large, working-class family, spent many of her summer days with a friend, pretending that their scooters were horses and making the scant 100 feet of sidewalk they were allowed to ride on into an imaginary kingdom.

Children's Resistance

Other children resisted their parents' efforts to enrich their summers, especially when the enrichment was academic. For instance, Simon's father, who waited tables full-time while trying to start his own gardening business, proudly told us that he made Simon read every day. Out of his father's earshot, Simon elaborated:

Simon shows me the book Earth Explored, which his dad got him at the mall. He says that his dad makes him read for 10 minutes each day. He smiles, "My dad is always trying to make me study—and I fake it. I just go in here and look at the pictures and listen to the radio."

Likewise, when Justin's upper-middle-class mother did not lean on him, Justin neglected his workbooks:

[Justin's mother] bought him workbooks, one for fifth grade and one for sixth grade. She says he started in the middle of one and went as far as he could into grade 6. When she's really on top of things, he'll do it every day. If she doesn't remind him to do it, he won't do it.

Without nagging, few kids chose academic activities. Mikaili, a poor student who lived in a housing project outside of the school's attendance area, was not allowed to leave the house while her mom was at work. She spent hours playing a Barbie computer game, but her brand new African-American history cd-rom sat, still wrapped in plastic, on the floor.

We found that motivated and unmotivated children came from all social classes, but the wealthier parents we observed seemed best able to notice and overcome their children's resistance. Both David's upper-middle-class father and Simon's working-class father wanted their sons to read—and both found that their efforts failed. But, while Simon got away with pretending (his father confessed, "I can't control what they do when I'm not here"), David's parents enrolled him in a private reading program. Not only was David's summer school expensive, but David's father had to pick him up at 3:00 p.m., something he could do because he worked at home. David's father also took him on outings to push him to expand his horizons:

The only thing that he [David] does, that he voluntarily does, is play [video games] or play with his army men. And those are the only kinds of things that come from within him—and the Pokémon stuff. But, like, he would never wake up in the morning and say, "Let's go to the science museum." I mean he's glad that he went, but....

Many children were content with video games and TV. For advantaged parents, the cure to this "TV problem" was day camp. For instance, Kelly, a middle-class student whose grandmother subsidized her summer activities, would have loved to stay home and watch TV. But her father enrolled her at pricey Hillside camp. The camp was not particularly challenging, but all campers stayed active, moving through a potpourri of activities: singing and dancing, making lanyard crafts, cooking, playing red rover, and swimming. In contrast, less-advantaged children with similar dispositions, like Janelle, the girl whose mother couldn't find a full-day summer school that had extended hours and was affordable, spent much of their time in front of the TV.


Overall, we found that children's summers varied widely. Free from state-mandated standards and teachers' assignments, families designed their own activities, and their family resources (especially time and money, but also academic and cultural knowledge) played a critical role. Despite their good intentions, many parents, like Janelle's and Simon's, found that they either couldn't afford, or couldn't maintain, the enrichment they wanted to give their kids. And yet, some children and parents built fun and interesting summers out of very little. Parents sometimes found funding and transportation for activities through their extended family and social networks. And children sometimes found their own fun and stimulation—by creating projects, inventing games, and calling friends.

As a society, we currently do very little to build on children's efforts to enrich their own summers. But it wouldn't take much to help children make the most of their own initiative—and perhaps even jump-start those who are a little less motivated. Schools could, for example, send home lists of books that correspond with children's reading levels,4 worksheets that correspond with children's math skills, and science and history projects that would help kids prepare for the next year's curriculum. (All of these materials would also give parents a springboard to use to help their kids practice schoolwork over the summer.) Schools might also be able to facilitate carpools and daycare exchanges by asking children to exchange phone numbers and summer plans in the spring. Similarly, libraries and schools could collaborate to help set up summer book clubs (i.e., select appropriate books, find a parent or volunteer to host the meetings, encourage children to sign up, and make sure that enough copies of the books are available).

Of course, dramatically reducing summer inequalities will also require giving lower-income families the resources and infrastructure they need to create stimulating summers for their children. Children like Terah shouldn't have to rely on the luck of having well-educated neighbors and generous friends to access music and art lessons, concerts, and academic enrichment. And children like Simon and Janelle should have the opportunity to be pulled from the TV, even if that isn't their first inclination. In our research sample, the typical low-income family understood the value of enriching, educational summer experiences, but lacked the resources to provide those experiences for their children. Although the vast majority of the low-income parents in our study were trying to do what they could to further their children's academic and social development over the summer, they frequently came up short.

Several simple policy ideas emerge from our research. First, we should establish summer programs that are free (or inexpensive), provide transportation, accommodate parents' work schedules, and last for most of the summer. Second, we should ensure that these programs offer the kinds of enriching experiences that middle-income children enjoy, including music, art, and sports lessons; remedial tutoring that addresses children's academic weaknesses as well as enrichment tutoring that builds on their strengths and interests; and trips to museums, the zoo, historical sites, parks, and other fun, educational places. But we worry that creating programs specifically for low-income students will not result in high-quality programs because free camps often pale in comparison to their expensive counterparts. Thus, we highly recommend investing in programs that seek to serve both advantaged and disadvantaged students. Specialized, high-quality programs that provide scholarships to low-income students or use sliding scales to determine fees give poor students access to the exact same programs that their middle-class counterparts enjoy. Helping programs such as these to provide scholarships, transportation, and extended-care hours could vastly expand the opportunities for low-income students to experience high-quality enrichment over the summer.

Some lower-cost solutions should help as well. Schools should give children access to their computer labs and libraries over the summer, even just one day a week (after all, these resources often sit unused all summer). For students in low-income communities (where parents often don't feel safe letting kids walk very far), we should also bring more resources to children, by funding more bookmobiles (and artmobiles and museums-on-wheels). Finally, we should make sure to advertise existing community resources, parks, and summer programs widely—both to parents and students. Children like Terah should know that the community pool is free.

Tiffani Chin is executive director of EdBoost Education Corporation, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that offers tutoring, test-preparation, homework help, and enrichment classes. Meredith Phillips is assistant professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. This article is based on a longer version that appeared in Sociology of Education, Vol. 77 (July 2004) entitled "Social Reproduction and Child-Rearing Practices: Social Class, Children's Agency, and the Summer Activity Gap."


1. See Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., and Lindsay, J. (1996), "The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review," Review of Educational Research 66:227–268; Entwisle, D.R., Alexander, K.L., Olson, L.S. (1997), Children, Schools, and Inequality, Boulder, CO: Westview Press; Heyns, B. (1978), Summer learning and the effects of schooling, New York: Academic Press; and Heyns, B. (1987), "Schooling and cognitive development: Is there a season for learning?" Child Development 58:1151–1160.

2. We deliberately chose students from one neighborhood school because we wanted to study children who had similar school-year experiences and lived in the same community. Although our sample allows us to make interesting comparisons, it is important to note that the students who attend this school may differ from students who attend more financially and/or racially homogeneous schools.

3. We changed the names and identifying features of schools, organizations, and participants to preserve confidentiality.

4. For example, the California Department of Education Web site provides lists of books for 13 different reading levels and each child in California receives a suggested reading level with his or her standardized test results (

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