For many working parents, after-school programs are a necessity — the kids have to be somewhere in that multi-hour gap between when school gets out and your work ends. Plus, as they hit elementary school, kids start clamoring to join clubs or team, and as a parent, that budding independence is a beautiful thing.
OregonASK, a nonprofit dedicated to bettering after-school programs for children, reports that students who participate in them attend school more regularly, engage in fewer high-risk behaviors and perform better academically. Other benefits include a lower risk of obesity and the development of social and leadership skills. While the benefits can be great, we caregivers who have been through the Jenga act of coordinating after-school care understand that there can also be challenges. Here are some considerations to help you choose the right after-school program for your family.
What is your child passionate about? Helping your child find an activity that reflects her interests will help her flourish in the program, and make it more likely that she will want to continue with it.
How much of a commitment is it? Some after-school programs are over as soon as pickup comes. For others, there’s more to it. A soccer program may have weekend games. Violin lessons may involve daily practice sessions. (And keep in mind that at least in the beginning, when your child practices violin, you practice violin.) Make sure to factor in these “extras” when deciding on an activity to avoid over-scheduling and the anxiety that can come with that— both for you and for your child.
Where is the program located? If your child is truly passionate about an activity, it may be worth it to travel great distances to find the best of the best. But all that traveling can add up — especially if you are doing multiple after-school activities. And especially if you are doing multiple after-school activities with multiple kids! Think realistically about how much time this will mean for your family in the car or on the bus. If possible, you may want to mix up the heavy commuting activities with a program offered onsite at your child’s school.
How does the timing work? Coordinating your schedule with your child’s schedule can be tricky — especially when multiple children are involved. Making sure you have a comfortable time cushion can help calm nerves and avoid white-knuckled driving. Be sure to also consider how late the activity will go — if it bleeds into dinner time, you may want to plan ahead with easy-to-prepare meals that evening (see some suggestions here), or splurge on take-out.
Can you coordinate with other families? Signing your child up for an activity with a buddy has several benefits. In addition to creating a more comfortable and fun environment for your child, it can also be conducive to that most-loved word in parenting: carpooling. Coordinating drop-offs and pickups can be a lifesaver for parents, whether you work outside the home or not.
What’s the cost? The most expensive program isn’t always the best — there are lots of great, low-cost options out there for kids. Beyond the initial cost, though, it’s important to remember to factor in the added expenses. Will your child need a uniform? A costume? An instrument? Will you need to pay for a caregiver to drop off and pickup your child? These extra expenses can add up quickly.
How’s the balance? It’s important to give kids time to just be kids, too. Even if your children have to be in daily after-school programs because of your work schedule, you can still find balance. Try to accommodate the activities that you want your child to do (I’m surely not the only adult who was forced to take piano lessons throughout my childhood) with the activities they really want to do. Or try to balance some of the more rough-and-tumble activities with calmer ones, like yoga or art. You may also try to coordinate weekly playdates with other parents — maybe they can take your child once a week for a few hours after school in exchange for a monthly weekend sleepover at your place— or even a nice bar of chocolate or bottle of wine!
To learn more about specific programs in the Portland metro area, check out our guide of fun and enriching after-school programs.