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School’s Out! Let the Learning Begin

Exploring the ingredients of a great summer enrichment program
School’s Out! Let the Learning Begin

Summer programs can play a powerful role in kids’ lives and learning, especially when they’re structured in a way that prioritizes strong peer and mentor relationships and that actively engages kids in a mission that they themselves help to define.

That’s one of the findings of a new series of reports from the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) that explores how out-of-school programs — whether in the summer or after school — can most effectively engage young people and create a truly enriching experience.

In a commentary that accompanies the reports, M. Elena Lopez identifies four dimensions of engagement in out-of-school learning settings:

  • cognitive engagement: the investment of effort into acquiring information, practicing skills, and developing critical thinking;
  • behavioral engagement: attendance, conduct, and participation;
  • social engagement: actions that make young people part of a community; and
  • emotional engagement: the feelings that young people develop through participation and relationships that can make them feel accepted and cared for.

“Afterschool programs can make youth engagement happen,” writes Lopez, the associate director of the HFRP. “By paying attention to the quality of physical spaces, activities, and interactions, afterschool programs are expanding youth interests, knowledge, and skills. They are also helping youth shape their identities in the transition to adolescence, and for older youth, to adulthood.”

But the academic, personal, and social benefits depend on the quality of the programs available, Lopez writes. Drawing on more than a decade of research on afterschool programs, Lopez and colleagues identify a set of best practices that afterschool programs can adopt to promote engagement and help young people develop skills like problem solving, responsible decision making, and self-confidence.

  • To promote cognitive engagement:
    • Offer new and desirable content
    • Customize learning activities
    • Offer encouragement
  • To promote behavioral engagement:
    • Make the environment fun and relaxing
    • Provide structure and routine
    • Vary modes of learning
  • To promote social engagement:
    • Design meaningful peer interactions
    • Form interest-driven interactions with staff and peers
    • Foster a sense of community
  • To promote emotional engagement:
    • Encourage staff and youth relationships
    • Provide leadership opportunities

The HFRP’s related series of out-of-school learning reports kicks off with a comprehensive case study of the Everett Boys and Girls Clubs in Everett, Massachusetts. The report, entitled This Is Their House, Too”: An Afterschool Space Designed for and by Teenagers, was written by HGSE doctoral students Deepa Vasudevan and Jessica Fei. It chronicles the Everett club’s success in engaging middle and high school students through intentional efforts to give them space and autonomy.  

Also in the series:

  • An interview with S. Craig Watkins on family engagement and connected learning. Watkins, a professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is a member of the Connected Learning Research Network, which explores the possibilities of connecting what children learn in school with experiences outside of school.
  • A look at the “Steam Express” — an innovative mobile classroom for students and families to explore science, technology, engineering, arts, and math
  • A look at the successful engagement strategies used by an innovative museum-based learning center.  
  • An update from the U.S. Department of Education about designing authentic STEM experiences in afterschool through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

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