Family to Family: Remaking Family Learning

Since 1983, Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) has served as a national platform for forward-thinking perspectives on family and community engagement and anywhere, anytime learning strategies. HFRP synthesizes research, conducts national and community forums, and documents promising practices that connect families, schools, libraries and museums, afterschool, and early childhood and community programs.

In solidarity with my daughters who are finishing up their school reports describing their summer adventures, I thought I’d share mine. The last week of August, my family and I headed to Long Beach Island (LBI), New Jersey for what turned out to be much more than a day at the beach. Through a program called Passport to LBI we explored the history and ecology of the island: we used a seine, or small net, to catch minnows and crabs in the bay, held baby clams, visited the island museum to see a schoolhouse from 1915, and counted together as we climbed over 200 steps the top of a lighthouse. The best part–it was all free!

As we drove back home, my daughters were clamoring to learn more. They were curious about the world in new and exciting ways. My oldest daughter, inspired by the schoolhouse, wanted to jump back into reading the Little House on the Prairie books. My youngest daughter started using vocabulary and descriptive language we’d never heard from her before. Their newly-gained background knowledge was immense. This got me thinking – why should these activities only be available to me and my family? Why just on vacation? Why not everyone, everywhere, all the time?

In fact, there are a number of initiatives across the country coming together to create cities of learning where children, youth, and families have access to experiences just like the one my family had. These initiatives are designed particularly for children and families of low-income households, who often have unequal access to outside-of-school learning opportunities compared to children from households of higher-income status. In  Pittsburgh, as well as in Chicago, Dallas, and Washington, DC, networks of schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher-education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community have joined together to create learning opportunities for families and children throughout the year. These initiatives include strong digital media and technology components to provide learners opportunities to think about, pursue, and develop their interests. Students earn badges for participating in activities, which they can track, accumulate, and share with their families and teachers.

What’s exciting about this work–especially what’s going on in Pittsburgh–is that it promotes family engagement in new and emerging ways. These initiatives ensure that all families have access to programing, along with the knowledge and encouragement they need to help learners pursue their interests. The programs make clear, transparent, and coordinated connections among different learning opportunities so that families can easily navigate them. They create pathways so that experiences from summer learning can be explored both in and out of school throughout the entire year.

Most importantly, these initiatives bring about equity. We know that learners spend only 20% of their yearly waking hours in schools, leaving 80% of their time to learn outside of school. By making out-of-school learning available to all, these initiatives help reduce opportunity gaps that are detrimental to children’s and youths’ academic outcomes. In Chicago, for instance, the majority of students who participate in city-wide learning activitiesfrican-American or Latino and are from low-income households.

So, what did I learn this summer? That a trip to the beach, or anywhere, has the potential to be so much more.

Margaret Caspe is a Senior Research Analyst at Harvard Family Research Project, where she has been working in various capacities since 2000. Her research focuses on how families, early childhood programs, schools and communities support children’s learning.

Published September 16, 2015