This Summer, Cities Are Encouraging Kids to Do, Make, and Explore

Wealthy parents spend seven times more on enrichment activities for their kids than lower-income parents do, and several cities are working to close that gap.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he idyllic days of summer—whiling away the time in front of the Xbox, heading to the local pool, starting a lemonade stand. Those were the days. Today, summer is an extension of the school year for many—another opportunity to get a step ahead, expand horizons, pick up a new skill. Pity the kid who forgets that.

For kids from wealthier families, summer might mean a trip to Europe with their families, or volunteering in a rain forest in Costa Rica, or heading to summer camp. But for lower-income kids, many of these opportunities are out of reach. Studies have shown that high-income families spend nearly $7 in education enrichment for every $1 spent by low-income families. And that difference has tripled in the past 40 years. The largest spending differences were for activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camps.

The result is a growing gap when the school year starts up again.

Low-income kids “are 6,000 hours behind rich kids in what they’ve gotten to do in their lives,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. “We’ve got to catch that up.”

To close that gap, cities across the country, including Pittsburgh, are turning to their homegrown resources to create a “campus” out of their city where kids can do, make, and discover. With their rich arts, science, history resources, parks, and beaches, cities are a wealth of potential—if kids can just tap into it.

This summer, cities are connecting those opportunities in new ways for kids through the Cities of Learning initiative. In Los Angeles, that might mean kids joining in at libraries and the Getty Center to hone their art and computer coding skills. In Chicago, it might mean doing some urban camping and stargazing. In Dallas, it might mean exploring community action with digital storytelling. In Pittsburgh, kids might join the growing Maker Movement or pick up some engineering skills while making robots.

“By connecting our students with creative, interactive, and interest-driven learning opportunities,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in the press release kicking off the City of Learning, “we will help our city’s youth learn new skills and prepare to enter the workforce.” JPMorgan and the California Endowment have contributed more than $700,000 to LA’s City of Learning effort.

Dallas hopes to enroll more than 10,000 students in its summer programs. It is teaming with Big Thought, a nonprofit group that focuses on building partnerships to improve public education through creative learning. The programs are designed to bridge the learning gap that widens in the summer via creative learning and meaningful activities.

Although these summer programming opportunities have always been available, Cities of Learning makes them more visible—and more connected. A website allows kids to explore their interests and find activities and programs. It is also where kids can display what they’ve learned and showcase those skills for teachers, employers, and anyone else.

Cities will also be issuing digital badges to participating youth. Designed by the Mozilla Foundation, badges are a new form of credentialing for the digital age. Participating organizations design the badges, outlining the skills kids will learn and the pathways they’ll take to acquire those skills. Once earned, kids can display their badges online for teachers, employers, and others to see. With a click, anyone can learn about the skills needed to earn a badge, which skills the youth has earned, and much more.

Organizations from the US Department of Education, NASA, and the Veteran’s Affairs office are all using badges.

The “City of Learning” movement got started in Chicago in 2013 when more than 200,000 kids took part in activities across the city. The teens earned hundreds of digital badges, and more than 100 organizations took part. The program’s success was the kick start to the national campaign.

Let’s face it: Summers don’t have to be about more books, more reading, more math. But they also don’t have to be idle. Kids can explore their interests, or discover new interests, while having fun. With the help of Cities of Learning, kids can turn their own backyard into a summer of discovery. And who knows, maybe even be the start of a future career.

Pittsburgh teens will have the chance to join in the movement. On June 10, at 6:00 pm, the Sprout Fund will convene national leaders in badging to launch a citywide effort to codesign a badge ecosystem for Pittsburgh. Join the launch—sign up here.

Published June 05, 2014