2020 has forced many of us parents to learn new things and ways of life, or to re-learn the things we thought we knew in an attempt to adjust to this new socially-distant, mostly online life that we now live.
For instance, with many kids attending school from home and needing engagement the minute classes end, you might have more parents than ever wondering about their options when it comes to after-school programs.
And, even if kids are going back to school, there is still the question if parents should be looking to supplemental learning to make up for lost time and to fill gaps (and if those parents are wanting to limit in-person contact, are there online options?).
So, now is as good a time as ever for parents to learn about or re-introduce themselves to the after-school program; one that might look drastically different than those that many families are accustomed to experiencing and enjoying, but a valuable solution amidst uncertainty, nonetheless.
What is an after-school program?
An after-school program (also called OST or Out-of-School Time program) is an organized activity or experience that offers child supervision, while allowing kids the opportunity to engage in enrichment, skill development, athletics, arts, and more.
Just like camp keeps kids busy and engaged when school lets out for summer, the after-school program fills the gap between school letting out for the day and when it’s time for kids to return to parent supervision.
Similarly, while families also use summer camp time to blend fun and skill-building, after-school programs can do much of the same in blending entertainment and enrichment.
After-school program facts
There are a number of benefits to after-school programs, from the skill-building mentioned above to social time, increasing confidence, and more.
To help illustrate program importance, here are a few facts that speak to the current state of such programs, the need for more of them, and the positive impact they can have:
It was found that over 40% of students attending 21st Century Community Learning Center programs improved math and reading grades. (From youth.gov, and reported in Naftzger et. al., 2007.)
Regardless of any stat and from when it was derived, I think most of us can agree that increased education and social engagement can have a positive impact.
So, when you stack that up with the fact that "nearly 9 in 10 programs have long-term funding concerns because of school closures caused by COVID-19—and 6 in 10 are concerned that they may have to permanently shut their doors," (according to a survey commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance.) students might not have as much of an opportunity to reap such benefits as they once did.
And then in terms of school itself, "as of August 18, 20 of the 25 largest school districts are choosing remote learning only as their back-to-school instructional model, affecting over 4.3 million students," according to tracking from Education Week.
"Affecting." It's a powerful word here—it's not just that students have to learn differently, but that there might be an impact to their learning. Course materials will be impacted, delivery of course content will be impacted; homework and exams will be impacted. All of these things could have an effect on just how much knowledge a student absorbs and retains.
How to find an after-school program
Given their importance, and knowing that fewer after-school programs are available now than they were before, how do you find one?
The answer used to be to consult one of the many hubs of after-school program information, but with so much uncertainty, there is a chance a lot of the general information that is currently available online is outdated.
To find an after-school program, consider the following:
Check with your school and/or district
As mentioned above, much of what might be posted online could be outdated given the complexity and uncertainty of the situation, and how circumstances differ from city to city. Many schools and districts have been diligent in providing additional learning resources, so check with them for suggestions.
Search with "online" qualifiers
Meaning, while a simple Google search for “after school programs” might return a wealth of information, there is no telling how accurate that information is in terms of being held in the age of COVID.
So, one way around this is to search instead for “online after-school programs” with the thinking that an online option probably isn’t going to be impacted by social distancing, and is more or less available “now.” This also means that you won’t have to worry about your child physically gathering with others, while still gaining social interaction time.
Consider creating your own option
If you're not yet familiar, the learning pod is a gathering of kids who rotate homes and learn from a parent or hired teacher. There are pros and cons to such an approach, but many of the downsides can be mitigated by taking that experience virtual, and using an online after-school program to link kids up with friends and like-minded peers to learn from expert instructors.
Redefine what "after-school" means
Going back to the intro, what does "after-school" even mean anymore? Those who aren't physically going to school are learning from home, either full-time as an online student, or in a hybrid program. Which means it might be tough to get into the after-school mindset, since the line between school and home is blurred.
So, perhaps it's time to rethink the definition of after-school, or, as parents, to at least expand our thinking to include other types of "after-school" enrichment activities.
Meaning, what can kids do from home that is still valuable and beneficial? This is where other activities like online tutoring for kids and teens comes in. (Here are the traits of a great tutor to be on the lookout for.)
Examples and types of after-school programs
When it comes to the different available after-school programs, the approach you should take is that something that aligns with your student’s interests does in fact exist, but you just have to choose the one best for you.
Meaning, like the many different apps for which “there is an app for that,” and all of the different types of summer camps that cater to specific needs, after-school programs are widely available.
Here are a few examples:
Does your child have an interest in coding? Not yet? How about Minecraft? Minecraft modding is a fun activity for kids to jump into, where they learn to use variables, functions, and control structures to customize the gameplay experience.
Other sample programs include card games and algorithms, where kids can design and implement different card games and features, and program the shuffling of a deck and dealing of the cards thanks to Java coding.
Combining coding and game design, kids can learn Python to code their own games inspired by classic arcade titles. Declare, initialize, and use variables; work with strings, characters, and algorithms—it’s all there!
Even if held online, an after-school program can still offer fun with robotics, only virtually. For instance, kids can code a virtual robot online with graphical code blocks, and program their own virtual bots to navigate mazes, or even teach their robot how to draw a picture!
And let’s not forget—after-school programs are about enrichment, yes, but also...fun! So, while Minecraft modding mentioned above is a great and fun skill to build, kids can also dive into game-playing techniques, learning the strategies to beat the biggest enemy in the game, the Ender Dragon!
Not to mention options with Minecraft Bed Wars, Sky Wars, and custom mobs, there is no shortage of after-school fun with Minecraft.
And then to go along with the above, if your child is more into Roblox, how about having them learn to create a game with Roblox Studio, or join others to traverse a fiery Obby? Not only can participants learn to play and escape a floor and blazing platforms, they can learn to make their own levels that feature their favorite obstacles.
What makes a good after-school program?
Combining all of the above, what makes a good after-school program? While it really comes down to your unique situation, circumstances, and needs, here are some aspects to consider.
At-home or in-person
“Good” here could be whatever fits your situation best—do you want kids physically learning with other students, or at-home and online with others. Each scenario might provide certain advantages and drawbacks, but it might be the biggest piece to consider.
Educational vs. fun
Again, what’s the goal—to keep kids busy, to build their skills, to socialize with other kids, to keep them safe, all of the above? Some programs specialize in education, others in fun, and some in both.
Self-paced vs. live instruction
While I wouldn’t technically consider self-paced options to be true after-school programs, it’s worth noting that some parents do turn to such learning portals in order to help fill the after-school void.
There might be a number of benefits from doing so, but there are also differences between pure online options that don’t have live interaction, and those that do (check out online vs. face to face learning).
A moving target
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we as parents need to continue to be flexible and make adjustments to adapt to the present situation. We just don’t know what’s around the corner, and circumstances change quickly.
As kids head back to school or continue learning from home, best of luck in your adjustments, and here's to hoping they find the skills, knowledge, and confidence to get through the tumultuous times, and burst through even stronger on the other side.