What kinds of activities should my program include?
The best programs offer a balance of academics, recreation, enrichment, and cultural activities.
Just about any activity, from bird-watching to basketball, can be appropriate for an afterschool program, depending on how it is structured and whether or not it meets the needs of the community. The best programs combine academic, enrichment, cultural, and recreational activities, often through project-based
1 or theme-based
2 activities, but there's no set formula for doing this. In an afterschool theater program, for example, children might learn about local history by researching and writing a play about their city or neighborhood. Youth sports programs that keep statistics on teams and players have a built-in math component, waiting to be exploited by math-minded staffers. It's critical for every good program, particularly those for older children, to offer a choice of activities.
In planning activities, you should strive to address the multiple needs, interests, abilities and talents of children and youth, recognizing that these change as children get older. Consider again that hypothetical theater program we mentioned above, where children have learned some local history; they might also be involved in arts (set design and painting), physical activities (mime, dance, or warm-up and stretching exercises), math exercises (distributing or selling tickets), nutrition and cooking (making snacks to sell during intermission), and, depending on their ages and on the themes selected for the play, discussions of social issues (honesty, kindness, or for older children, larger issues such as race or class). This might sound overambitious, and in fact, it would be difficult for any one program to incorporate all of these elements into a single project. The example serves, however, to illustrate just how many learning opportunities exist in each of the many activities that children enjoy.
Keep in mind that the balance for each program depends on the ages of the children and the needs of participating families. For younger children, under age six, an afterschool program will obviously focus less on homework and tutoring (though structured learning enrichment is still important, there may be more emphasis on arts, play, rest and running around!). For middle and high schoolers, a more appropriate program might include structured time for homework, a service-learning component, and clubs, teams or other "elective" activities that the children themselves express an interest in.
In the Explanation section of this workshop, we provided a list of different sets of standards, which may offer a framework as you plan your activities.
Academic activities should be fun, engaging, and, ideally, should be coordinated with school-day curricula.
Let's think again about that afterschool theater program. The children have been busy working on their script. They've been given a few books on local history, and developed a story line. Now, with the help of their acting teacher, they begin to revise the dialogue. "That doesn't sound like the kind of thing a mayor would say," says one girl. The teacher directs her first to a thesaurus, and then to the Internet to look for the text of recent speeches given by the mayor of her city. Other children rewrite sections to make them more exciting, to get the audience's interest. After a few rounds of revision, the entire group is charged with the responsibility of checking spelling. Without knowing it, they have been engaged in a writing workshop of sorts, and the result is a script written collaboratively. Fun? Yes. Enriching? Absolutely.
In an ideal world, this theater project would be coordinated with the social studies curriculum for the children involved -- in this case, civics and local history. If they were studying Ancient Greece during the school day, they might have dramatized a series of myths. If the school-day teacher were about to embark on a unit about southeast Asian countries, well, the possibilities are endless.
Not all academic activities are always this creative, but they can be conducted in an intentional way that provides support and encouragement for students. Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford University discusses this “intentional curriculum” in her work Community Counts. Bearing in mind that they have already been through six hours of schooling, children need a way to differentiate their afterschool learning time. Tutoring and homework help will be more effective if children work in very small groups or, ideally, one-on-one with teachers, tutors, and volunteers. Some of the most successful outcomes in afterschool programs occur when students who feel they get lost in the large groups of the school day find a single adult who will help them with math, reading, or other problem areas. Afterschool programs offer the possibility of the kind of individual attention all students need and deserve.
Look for other ways to make academic enrichment enjoyable to children. Some might want a quiet place to read independently, especially if this is not available at home. A wide array of educational games are available if you know where to look; phonics bingo, counting games, and simple science experiments are all fun for children when presented in a relaxed and nurturing environment.
Activities centered on a specific project can provide challenges along with fun.
Afterschool activities work best when they tap into children's natural inquisitiveness and playfulness. In his paper "The Learning That Lies Between Play and Academics in Afterschool Programs," (see the Resources section for more information.) NIOST's David Alexander explains how project-based activities seem like play, but challenge children to use their problem-solving abilities, enabling them to learn new skills and understand new concepts. Projects should have clear boundaries, but lots of possibilities. Here's an example:
"Using fewer than 10 feet of masking tape and 100 paper straws, design a bridge that will span these two tables and hold the weight of the tape dispenser. Test to see if plastic straws are better than paper ones for building. Try wooden coffee stirrers instead of straws."
It's easy to imagine what will happen next in a room full of seven-year-olds or twelve-year-olds. There will be serious concentration, discussion, planning, execution, and then peals of laughter or squeals of delight as bridges either hold or fall. Because this activity has clear goals and a limited scope, it's ideal as an afterschool project.
Activities must meet the developmental needs of students, especially for downtime, for nutrition, and for letting off steam.
In order to achieve the many goals a good afterschool program will have, you'll need to attend to every child's basic physical needs. As we mentioned above, it's unfair to expect children to sit up straight and keep listening quietly at the end of the day. To ensure success, build physical activities into the schedule at appropriate times, and make sure that a nutritional snack is available to children when they are hungry. Activities will differ depending on the developmental needs of the children or youth you serve. For example, playground time is great for five-year-olds at the end of the day. For eighth-graders, team sports are appealing to some and unnerving to others. Offering alternatives to team sports, like movement classes or physical theater workshops, will help make all children feel included.