School’s out for summer, but the library is still open, and there are programs around the country looking to entice and educate kids—and their parents—while fostering a love of reading and preventing the summer slide. The programs use themes, prizes, and activities as incentives to motivate children to read over the break.
For libraries that participate in the Collaborative Summer Library Program (CSLP), a consortium that offers summer reading materials to libraries at low costs, the theme is science. Children will participate through the “Fizz Boom Read!” program, while the teen slogan is “Spark a Reaction.”
“We work three years out, so we planned this years ago,” said Karen Yother, president of the CSLP. “The science theme engages children because they’re naturally interested in the experiments and activities even if they don’t know that it’s physics or chemistry that makes it work.”
In the 27 years since its start in 1987, the CSLP has expanded to include libraries in all 50 states— including the District of Columbia and American territories such as the Cayman Islands and the American Samoa. Yet while the libraries agree to use a consistent theme and have the option of using the CSLP-created posters and materials, there’s plenty of room for individualization. Yother is also the youth services coordinator at the Community Library Network in Idaho, and she knows, first-hand, the importance of being able to adapt.
“People can customize their program to fit their needs,” Yother said. “My smallest library is a 700 square feet space in a retirement community, and the largest one is 2,500 square feet and is in the middle of town. There are different activities that’ll work for the different spaces. If [librarians] find that teen art works best for their adults, they can use it in the way that works best for their community.”
At the Tuscaloosa Public Library in Alabama, Vince Bellofatto is the director of communications and public relations at the Tuscaloosa Public Library in Alabama, and one of his responsibilities is to coordinate the summer reading program with the children’s and adult services departments. For this summer’s program, running from June 2 to August 1, Bellofatto helped plan programs that included having children make soda volcanos that fizz to life due to a combination of Mentos and Diet Coke (“It teaches them chemistry, and it’s fun and messy”) and booking local or regional performers, such as a juggler who goes by the stage name Tom Foolery. Building airplanes is another fun activity –that teaches kids about aerodynamics. Bellofatto also emphasizes that the summer program is for library patrons of any age.
“It’s like The LEGO Movie. The kids enjoy it, but there are some inside jokes for adults, too,” he said. “That’s the philosophy that we try to work with.”
With an 800-page manual, the CSLP has no shortage of program suggestions, ranging from the simple (crosswords) to the complex (puppet plays). There is also a sample letter for libraries that need to ask for donations. What works in Alabama might not work in Oregon, where Katie O’Dell works as the Youth Services Director for the 19-branch Multnomah Public Library. A summer reading program has existed there since 1913. O’Dell ran the summer reading program for eight years, and she knows how helpful the CSLP can be.
“Our program is the largest or second largest every year—we go back and forth with New York ,” she said, “so we could never afford to purchase materials for 110,000 kids, which is 73 percent of youth in the county. The summer reading kind of rules the county here.”
This year, summer reading in Oregon includes a visit from two female entomologists who call themselves the Bug Chicks. They’ll bring insects and spiders into library branches and let the children view them up close. O’Dell also mentioned an all-you-can-make art bar and a beatnik lab with drum machines and synthesizers.
Equally exciting are the prizes. In Multnomah, children are divided into three age groups: birth to age five, kindergarten to sixth grade, and seventh grade to 12 grade. As long as they read—or have their caregivers or siblings read to them, if they’re too young—for the required amount of time (15, 30, or 60 minutes, respectively), children can log their progress in the tracking database to keep record of who’s read what, and move their pieces along the path of their game boards, which were given to them in school before summer break. They collect points along the way, which can be redeemed for prizes. Smaller prizes like erasers or free tae kwon do lessons cost fewer points than the grand prizes for each age group, which are a birthday party at the Children’s Museum, a weekend at the water park Great Wolf Lodge, or a $250 shopping spree.
“We start collecting the prizes nine months in advance,” O’Dell said. “They’re all donated from national and local sponsors.”
Some libraries are able to have successful summer programs without partaking in the CSLP. In California, the theme for this year’s summer reading program is animals, which goes with the slogan, “Paws to Read.”
“[The California Library Association] presents the program in partnership with an organization called iREAD [the Illinois Reading Enrichment and Development program], and the program is funded with an LSTA grant from the California State Library,” Natalie Cole explained. Cole, the interim executive director of the California Library Association, continued, “We work with iREAD to develop upcoming themes and slogans, and we canvass feedback from librarians throughout the process to ensure that the theme we select will be relevant and engaging for them.”
Like the CSLP, the iREAD program provides artwork for promotional materials and incentives that reinforce the theme for the summer. The iREAD website also has program suggestions, like a statewide stuffed animal sleepover called Paws to Slumber and a library animal safari, where children go on a scavenger hunt around the library for books with animal characters or posters with animals on them. According to the site, a package of animal crackers would make an appropriate prize for the winner. For teens there are suggestions to put on a play for the younger children or to take a trip to an animal shelter or an aquarium.
Meanwhile, in Houston, Texas, the summer reading program centers on the theme “Your Space to Dream.” Sandra Fernandez, who works in the public relations department of the Houston Public Library, explained that there are multiple goals for the program.
“Our goal was for the program to be strongly focused in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM),” she said. “We also wanted to ensure that it was fundamentally a reading program and also included arts programs. We developed STREAM to include reading and arts (Science Technology Reading Engineering Arts Math). ‘Your Space to Dream’ offers STREAM activities as part of the Summer Reading Program.”
Those activities range in complexity from a black-light puppet show to a simple machines workshop. Perhaps due to such a wide variety of programming, the summer reading program has seen a large increase in participants.
“We currently have more than 13,000 kids and teens enrolled, compared with approximately 6,000 at this time last year,” Fernandez says. “Kids are thrilled that they have the opportunity to earn badges for reading and attending programs this year.”
Whether it’s the badges and prizes, the programs, an interest in a specific theme, or a love of reading that motivates kids to take part, librarians are happy to be seeing kids engaged and learning while they’re having fun.
“We don’t ‘gear down‘ learning for summer; we increase the joy of learning during the summer,” said Bellofatto. “We want the library to be a cool and entertaining place to visit during the summer as well as the school year.”
Carly Okyle is a freelance journalist who has written for FamilyCircle.com, YourTango.com, and Guideposts magazine. Her blog “The D Card” is candid look at living with disability issues.