Remember how gleeful you felt on the last day of school? Even kids who love the classroom and its comforting routines get excited about the freedoms that summer typically brings. But the “Summer Slide” is no myth, and kids from low-income families are particularly likely to lose some of their academic achievement gains during the long break from school.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, children in low-income households lose two months’ worth of progress in reading achievement on average. “And that lag compounds every year, so the impact really adds up,” explains Dana Duran, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northwest Colorado (BGCNWC).

The good news: When summer reading and learning feels fun, kids build skills that battle the Summer Slide. So the BGCNWC has been steadily growing its academic enrichment programs for kids who attend summer camp programming in Craig and Steamboat. Most participants don’t even realize they’re “studying.”

“It’s different from a traditional school setting, because there’s no pressure for kids to get answers right. They’re not being graded,” explains Erin Steger, Unit Director for the Craig BGC. “Kids can put as much or as little into it as they want, yet they’re still getting something out of it.”

Called Summer Brain Gain, the learning-focused programming is offered at both Craig and Steamboat Springs. Topics and activities are developed by the national Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which produces an array of week-long modules that explore subjects in math, geography, science, art, and more. For summer 2024, interns will lead Steamboat kids in Brain Gain activities. In Craig, Malissa Iacovetto (a Moffat School District paraprofessional) heads up the learning sessions. Initially supported by area school districts and an ESSER grant that funded 28 kids at each Club, Summer Brain Gain has since received additional Be Great Bash funding so that all camp participants can tap into educational development.

“It’s a lot of hands-on stuff,” says Steger. The “Around the World” module, for example, explored the cultures, climates, animals and ecologies of countries such as Japan and Ghana. When time allows, kids pursue their individual questions and curiosities: During a unit on the International Space Station, kids researched how astronauts wash their hair in outer space. Facilitators also help realize kids’ requests for spinoff activities—such as looking at the International Space Station through a telescope.

“I like [Summer Brain Gain] because I see that light bulb moment for kids,” says Steger. “Kids talk about it with their parents and the reaction is always, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!’”

That fun factor is a big part of the program’s appeal, says Duran. “It’s not punitive,” she explains. “It’s designed to be a catch-up and a keep-up.” So although kids in Craig and Steamboat Springs may not be excited to return to classrooms next fall, they’ll have the academic readiness they’ll need at school.