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Library Summer Learning Program Strategies and Models

Traditional, incentive-based summer reading programs and integrated, hands-on summer learning exist as part of a broad continuum of library-based summer learning programming. Summer reading programs are enhanced by allowing and encouraging readers to also earn credits for participating in STEM, maker, multi-media, tutoring and other hands-on, inquiry-based and participatory learning activities at the library or at home and linking these experiences with books and reading material. In fact, over 70% of surveys received indicated that some form of hands-on/interactive summer learning activities are available via their library.


Teens at Fort Worth Library participate in hands-on Robotics Program

Linking program activities thematically, for example via the Collaborative Summer Library Program’s “Every Hero Has a Story” theme, makes them more powerful and facilitates the connection of those activities to reading. Central libraries can provide theme-related resources to branches, making these efforts very cost-effective across a system.

The definition of summer learning programs may be misunderstood as requiring enrollment in a full-time, five- or six-week “camp” when actually libraries’ drop-in and self-directed models of summer learning embody high-quality practices in areas identified in NSLA’s Comprehensive Assessment of Summer Programs (CASP). These include inquiry-based learning, shared facilitation, arrival/departure/transition, program spirit, and youth-produced work. Because of strong practices in program design, a young person can often participate in a library’s drop-in program at any point and benefit from high-quality programming. Some challenges regarding this approach were observed:

  • Libraries that are adding hands-on, integrated learning activities to their summer reading programs find a challenge in name recognition by children, families and community members. Communities have come to love summer reading at the library and the fun aspect of earning prizes. While libraries understand the importance of offering more varied learning opportunities that are fun and impactful, they also know it is equally important that these offerings do not look, feel or sound like school. The programs linked above have found creative ways to address this challenge through unique names and messaging, and communities are definitely catching on and appreciating the shift.
  • Another challenge related to evolving summer reading into integrated summer learning programs involves gaining staff buy-in and enthusiasm for delivering new types of learning activities. Librarians may be reluctant to engage in diverse learning activities for fear that it will equate to losing their beloved summer reading programs. But through professional development and community assessment, staff come to understand the critical learning needs of youth and families, and become more willing to learn and deliver new programming to meet those needs.

More and more, libraries are also developing and piloting focused, enrollment-based programs that may be a part of or complimentary to the broader summer reading programs. We found that these more focused programs are often offered on a week-to-week basis, aim to address early literacy and grade-level reading, or elements of STEM learning, and are specifically targeted for youth who most need the educational supports but do not otherwise have access to them.


An instructor for Free Library of Philadelphia's Back to School Jumpstart Camps leading literacy activities


Children in Chicago Public Library's award-winning program engage in hands-on STEM workshop

Through our work together and noted by their first-ever Founder’s Award for Excellence in Summer Learning to Chicago Public Library, NSLA has recognized that libraries play a special role in the summer when schools are closed and young people need safe spaces and options for inquiry-based learning activities. Library leaders are recognizing their ability to respond to community learning needs in ways that other organizations cannot. They are expanding their summer offerings and increasing outreach to engage more kids and families, in more ways and in more places, especially those from low-income communities. Families can drop-in day after day and become independent learners, accessing not only books, but summer meals, engaging activities, technology, and other resources. Libraries are effectively promoting active family engagement in young people’s reading and learning while also providing access to learning for all family members.

  • Library leaders also continue to address the challenge of engaging youth and families from low-income and marginalized communities, and the struggling readers who would most benefit from the library’s summer programming.
  • Similarly, most incentive-based reading programs require young readers to reach a specific benchmark to earn a prize and struggling readers may not reach the benchmark despite their committed participation and regular reading. Library leaders continue to explore ways in which these readers may be supported and rewarded and strongly encouraged to keep reading and learning.

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