Most important summer activity for kids? Not reading, many parents say.

Although 83 percent of parents say it is very or extremely important that their children read this summer, only 17 percent say it is the most important activity, a new survey finds. Playing outside scores higher.

Erin McCracken/mbr/AP/File
Samuel Piechocki, 6, shows an animal encyclopedia to his mother, Ellen Piechocki and brother, Christian Piechocki, 7, as they browse the shelves for library books at the Alexandrian Public Library in Mount Vernon, Ind., May 27, 2014.

Despite the importance that parents place on children’s summer reading, it often takes a back seat to playing outside or screen time, reports a new national survey of parents with children ages 5 to 11.

 Eighty-three percent of parents say it is very or extremely important that their children read this summer, but only 17 percent say it is the most important activity – second to the 49 percent who prioritize playing outside, according to the survey of just over 1,000 parents commissioned by Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), a literacy nonprofit in Washington.

Last summer, the parents say, their children averaged 5.9 hours of reading books per week (higher for girls, lower for boys), compared with nearly 17 hours of playing outside, almost 11 hours of watching TV, and nearly seven hours of playing video games.

The survey comes just as many communities – and role models such as Michelle Obama – are preparing to promote National Summer Learning Day on Friday. (See this interactive map of activities.)

Research has shown that students can lose up to several months’ worth of math and reading skills during the “summer slide.” More than half of the academic achievement gap between low-income and high-income students can be explained by differences in opportunities to keep learning during the summer, reports the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore.

"Many families think of reading as eating your vegetables – good for you but not necessarily a treat,” says Carol Rasco, CEO of RIF, in a statement. “Reading is the best vacation. It takes you places you never dreamed you would visit, and summer especially is a time when kids can immerse themselves in the topics they like best."

Here are some of the survey’s key findings:

  • A majority of parents (59 percent) say their children do just the right amount of reading in the summer. Forty percent say it’s not enough.
  • Most parents who believe their children don’t read enough say they are busy with other activities, but others say it’s due to lack of books (3 percent), lack of someone to talk with the child about the books (5 percent), or lack of books of interest to the child (12 percent).
  • Three-quarters of parents borrow books from the library for their children’s summer reading, with 30 percent visiting weekly.
  • Among younger children, ages 5 to 8, 42 percent favor books that center around a favorite TV character.
  • Fifty-one percent of parents say their children did not participate last summer in a reading program offered by libraries, schools, or community groups.
  • Children of parents who consider reading very or extremely important are more likely to have read a book four or more times a week last summer (55 percent), compared with children of parents who place low importance on reading (26 percent).

The survey is timed to help promote the Be Book Smart campaign, launched Wednesday by RIF and Macy’s. Running through July 13, it encourages Macy’s customers to donate $3 in exchange for a $10 coupon, with all the proceeds going to RIF to provide books for children in need – and start them “on a journey to a lifelong love of reading," Ms. Rasco says.

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