A dozen chattering youngsters stand in line waiting eagerly to step up to the big white truck in front of Sheridan Park district building where they attend summer day camp – so they can each grab two hefty plastic bags of books. The kids dig into their bags immediately, proposing trades to their friends or getting excited when they find a book with stickers.

“Put away your books,” camp leaders tell the children, “and put on your swim suits for the pool. We’ll read after lunch.”

Through the Summer of Learning, an initiative to link city and private resources and provide more summer enrichment activities for children and teens, Chicago Park District summer camps are emphasizing reading along with traditional camp activities. Every summer day camp is expected to implement 20 minutes of reading daily for each child, whether it’s reading on his or her own, or being read to by an adult.

Camps instill reading in their programs in various ways. “Many parks go to their local library to choose books,” says Vaughn Bryant, chief program officer for the Park District. “Other camps just have the kids bring the books from home. The weather’s been nice out so they can go outside and pick a space in the park under a tree to read.”

The reading initiative comes during a year when Park District day camps are on track for record enrollment, with 31,500 registrations received by early June compared to 28,750 registrations during the same period in 2012. (The Park District did not have final figures in July.)

Helping at-risk youth

Bernie’s Book Bank, an organization that delivers free books to at-risk youth, supports camps that don’t have much access to books. Members of the organization drive the big white truck to three locations in one day, preparing stacks of 12 age-appropriate books to give to each child. They distribute 20 to 30,000 books every week and hope to serve every at-risk youth in Chicago by 2016. Books are acquired through book drives in schools, corporations, and community events.

Low-income youngsters stand to gain the most from extra summer reading, research suggests, since they are most likely to lose ground in learning during the summer break.

“We’re all guaranteed a pursuit of happiness in America,” says Brian Floriani, executive director at Bernie’s Book Bank. “However, that pursuit is dependent on two things – who you know and what you know – and if you grow up in poverty, your list of who you know is not very long. Bettering your situation [comes] through education, and reading proficiently to properly get that education. So the only way out of poverty is to read your way out of poverty.”

Bernie’s distributes most of its books through Working In The Schools (WITS), a volunteer-based tutoring and mentoring program in Chicago, and at summer events for children.

This summer, WITS launched its own program to support reading by partnering with three parks – Clarendon, Nichols, and Fosco – and sending volunteers from downtown to the parks to read one-on-one with students. The volunteers work with the same kids every week, so they form valuable relationships with them as well as the ability to track their progress throughout the summer.

Brenda Palm, executive director at WITS, says the camp experience is a unique one to involve innovative learning opportunity. “The camp vibe is so cool,” she says, “The kids are having so much fun and they’re enjoying themselves. So to incorporate reading as well as an adult mentor who’s encouraging them in a fun environment to really spark the love of learning is an exciting thing.”

The Chicago Public Library also makes sure parks get the materials to make reading fun, with posters where camp leaders can track what books they read to children and “discovery logs” for kids to track their own reading time.

Many of the summer camps visit the library once a week, but that’s not all it’s about, says Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing and communications at CPL.

“Learning should be something that is everywhere kids turn,” Lednicer says. “It’s not just ‘If you go to the library you can learn this” – it’s if you go to the park, if you go to the museum. It’s really about kids having experiences of learning all the time so they start school with a great learning attitude.”

The initiative links subjects like engineering and math with reading, to show kids that there are books for any topic they’re interested in.

At Sheridan Park summer camps, kids read for 20 minutes after lunch every day. They look at books together, or spread out all of their books on the table to leisurely flip through them. Some youngsters are a little harder to motivate, though, especially the younger ones.

“The kids are trying to have fun,” says Virginia Perez, day camp director at Sheridan Park. “So we tell them, ‘You do the 20 minutes, you read, it’s just to get your mind going.’ ”

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