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Choosing the right after-school activities

Nisha Daniel


After-school programs offer great benefits to working parents, providing them with opportunities to keep children engaged and out of trouble. But how do you choose the most suitable program?

There are a huge number of social, academic enrichment, and health programs available, offering art, technology, reading, math, sports, civic involvement, and other learning opportunities. Scheduling and cost must also be taken into consideration.

A recent working paper, After School Programs in the 21st Century: Their Potential and What it Takes to Achieve It, published by the Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), offers some guidance gleaned from over ten years of research.

The paper found three primary factors most likely to contribute to positive outcomes. First, children should have easy access to programs and be able to participate in them on a sustained basis. Children benefit most from programs that align with a child’s interests, schedule, and needs. Second, programs should have appropriate supervision and structure, well-prepared staff, and clear stated and executed goals. Third, they should enable partnerships with families, other community organizations, and schools.

Here is a checklist to help you evaluate an after-school program.

1. Does your child need an after-school activity?
There is growing concern among some parents and educators that children are being overscheduled, and that the cumulative demands placed on children are too high. Before signing up for another activity, also give thought to whether your child has time to play and just ‘have fun’, and whether you get to have some fun with her.

2. How does your child benefit from the program?
Make a distinction between an after-school program that aims for several positive outcomes versus one that amounts to glorified babysitting.
For academic achievement programs, studies show that the most effective programs combine academic improvement with other enrichment activities which in turn support academic performance.

3. Will your child be able to participate in the program on a regular, sustained basis?
Active, ongoing participation is a key success factor. Students who participated in multi-year programs show the greatest improvement.

4. Can you make the necessary time and financial commitments to ensure activity continuity over an extended period? Is your child interested in the chosen activity?
This is an obvious, but sometimes neglected factor. Make sure your child expresses enthusiasm about a given activity and agrees to participate for a reasonable amount of time. Apprehensive children who believe their parents are too busy are less willing to engage in new activities.

5. Can the program keep your child engaged over time?
A good after-school program should have no trouble answering this question.

What are the goals of the program?

Does the program offer adequate supervision and structured programming?

The best results come from programs in which staff are engaged in focused, supervised activities with children. Children are more likely to thrive if they form strong bonds with a program’s staff.

6. Is there an opportunity for you and the rest of the family to get involved?
Parental involvement can enhance positive outcomes in programs and other related activities. In addition, talking with other involved parents is a great way to get a feel of a program.

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