How to Choose After-School Activities

The gap between the end of school and the end of the business day can present a challenge for parents. This after-school time, typically two to four hours, provides an opportunity for children to learn skills and explore interests. But timing, transportation and costs sometimes get in the way.

A national survey earlier this year of more than 2,000 K-8 parents and guardians showed that 65% have children enrolled in after-school activities. Interestingly, child care was not the primary motivation, according to the survey by the nonprofit parent support organization Learning Heroes. The most frequently cited reason, named by 74% of parents, was to “expose children to new experiences, ideas, and perspectives beyond their everyday home and school lives.”

“These providers play a dual role of child care and enrichment,” says Karen Pittman, co-founder of the Forum for Youth Investment, a nonprofit whose mission is to ensure that children are college and career ready. “They are safe, supportive learning places for your kid to be while you are at work.”

In some cases, after-school activities also can provide needed stability and a foundation for success in school. However, for every child in an after-school program in the U.S., there are three more waiting to get in, according to the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

A household survey called America After 3PM released by the organization in December of 2020, which queried more than 30,000 families, found significant inequities, with Black and Latinx children disproportionately lacking in after-school opportunities. Families who live in rural areas and low-income urban areas or who have limited income are also often underserved.

Yet, even under those circumstances, education experts say parents can often find options.

The Benefits of After-School Activities

Exploring a range of activities, rather than specializing in one, is most beneficial for K-5 students, Pittman says. Once a child demonstrates a particular interest in one activity, parents can then add more instruction or focus on it at home.

The same rule applies to sports, experts say. Parents should expose their children to many sports, then lean into one in which their child appears to be having fun, says Sheila Ohlsson Walker, a senior scientist at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. Another option for parents is to pick a coach who focuses on fun, wellness and character.

“When they can have fun early on and they learn to love to move their bodies, they have this incredible built-in system for managing stress and mental health,” Walker says. “It is important for everything over the long haul.”

After-school activities provide a host of benefits to elementary school children. They can lead to improvement in grades, school attendance and behavior, according to the Afterschool Alliance.

[Read: 10 Fun STEM Activities for Kids.]

Students can practice what they learn in school (for example, reading a script for an acting class). They can explore different activities that may not be offered elsewhere — such as STEM or dance — and discover new interests. Furthermore, because after-school programs are sometimes more diverse than school classrooms, with students of different ages and backgrounds, children can build empathy, communication and teamwork skills.

“That kind of group play is critical for social-emotional development,” Pittman says.

Navigating After-School Activities

Many parents find it difficult to manage the costs and transportation issues that come with trying to create a custom lineup of interest-based activities. Rather, many families use facilities that offer a range of activities all in one place.

Some schools offer “extended day” options that feature supervised playground time and basic activities like drawing or painting. Other options include organizations like the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of America or local community centers, which offer a combination of activities that often include — in addition to child care –art, music, dance and sports, as well as homework help and quiet time.

There are also more specific pursuits, which can be added to the larger after-school programs. Sports teams, for example, usually require signing up with a separate organization, such as a soccer or hockey league. Some parents also opt for private lessons in music or other subjects. The Learning Heroes survey says parents use an average of two program providers to occupy their children during after-school hours.

Education experts say there are many different options, though they caution that parents should choose organizations and instructors well-versed in child development. “Don’t take your 5-year-old to have lessons with the conductor of the symphony orchestra,” Pittman says.

Popular After-School Activities

Here are some suggestions for parents to investigate:

Art. Art is fundamental to education as a cross-brain experience that involves mind, body and heart, Pittman says. A 2019 study by the Brookings Institution examined an initiative for elementary and middle school students in Houston that provided an average of 10 enriching arts education experiences across dance, music, theater and the visual arts. For elementary schools specifically, the study showed that “increases in arts learning positively and significantly affect students’ school engagement, college aspirations, and their inclinations to draw upon works of art as a means for empathizing with others.”

Foreign languages. Research shows multiple benefits when children learn another language, according to ACTFL, an organization representing language educators and administrators. The benefits include a correlation between language learning and higher academic achievement (including higher standardized test scores); improved cognitive abilities, such as memory; and a positive attitude toward the new language and people who speak it.

Martial arts. The martial arts are an excellent form of physical activity, and they also teach respect, honor and discipline. A recent post by Martial Arts Unleashed lists five styles that are beneficial for children: karate, taekwondo, Brazilian jiujitsu, judo and wrestling.

Music. Music is another cross-brain experience, and countries including Japan and Denmark incorporate it into early childhood education, Pittman says. When K-12 students have a chance to play an instrument, sing in a chorus or participate in other musical activities, they are more likely to stay in school and to perform better in English, math, science and second languages, according to a 2018 report by the NAMM Foundation, a nonprofit supported in part by the National Association of Music Merchants.

Sports. This is another type of multi-modal learning that involves your child’s brain, physical activity and social interaction. This makes the learning “stickier” for K-5 children, Walker says. “Exercise creates an upper for the brain,” she says. “This helps us think more clearly, be more creative and reinforces the ability to learn.” The Aspen Institute’s Project Play has advice for parents who are trying to find the best sport or local program, mobilize their community to improve play, or coach children more effectively.

STEM. Science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM, are key skills for today’s students. The Afterschool Alliance’s Afterschool STEM Hub offers information about the importance of programs that immerse children in these subjects. Many after-school programs are trying to do more with STEM.

Options in Underserved Communities

Shannon Christian, executive director of the Worland Youth Learning Center in rural Worland, Wyoming, has seen the power of after-school programs firsthand. She tells the story of one elementary school boy who acted out in school but who was always at his best when visiting the center.

He eventually transitioned from traditional school to homeschooling but continued to attend the after-school program, where he enjoyed science and writing activities and helped teach other children. “If you could keep his mind engaged and challenged, he was an amazing kid,” Christian says.

Not all communities are lucky enough to have a facility like Worland, which accepts all students regardless of ability to pay, and parents in these communities may have to work harder to find after-school solutions.

[READ: Private School vs. Public School.]

In urban areas, parents can check with coaches or teachers, who may know of activities, or with the city’s parks and recreation department. The YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs are also often located where they can serve the greatest need, Pittman says.

Schools, libraries, faith-based organizations and 4-H often have after-school programming in rural areas, and individuals sometimes offer after-school care in their homes. Parents can also consider carpooling with other families to sports activities, or partnering with schools and organizations to launch new after-school programs in their community.

The Afterschool Alliance offers general advice for parents who are looking for or trying to create programs. Parents may be able to find charities, local organizations or grants to subsidize new programming.

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

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