After-School Activities
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After-School Activities

You know your child is safe in school but what to do after class is dismissed? Here are some options.

After School Options

Like most parents, I thought my child care worries were over when my youngest son, David, started kindergarten. But since my husband doesn't get home from work until 4:30 p.m. and I usually get in from the office around 6 p.m., we needed someone to care for David for an hour and a half every day. Luckily, I have relatives nearby who were willing to watch David, and on days that arrangement doesn't work out for some reason, I can send him to our school district's after school program.

That's the option Gwenn Berke of Raleigh, NC chose for her daughters, Rachel, 11, and Shelby, 8 -- she enrolled them in their school district's after school program. In addition to playing sports and doing arts and crafts projects, the girls can get tutoring and homework help if they need it. A bonus: Gwenn found that having her girls complete their homework during the program freed up the family's evenings at home.

As with most types of child care, options for after school care for your elementary school-age child vary from community to community. But the common denominator is the need for before and after school care to ensure the safety of your children if you work outside the home. "There is a growing demand for before and after school care," says Darrell Rud, president of the National Association for Elementary School Principals, and principal of Newman Elementary School in Billings, Montana. "Our society is changing so much -- many parents cannot be home after school due to work obligations."

Here's a look at who is providing after school care these days.

Schools

A growing number of elementary schools provide before- and /or after school care right in the school building. "Parents often look to the schools to help them because schools are positive places for kids," says Rud. Sometimes the programs are sponsored by the school district and staffed with regular faculty; other times these programs are sponsored by an outside organization such as the YMCA. In that case, the organization provides the staff.

Often parents prefer a program that is right in the school building because they don't have to worry about arranging for transportation. Many school-sponsored programs also offer tutoring or homework help, and if they are staffed with school personnel, there is continuity in teaching methods. Parents also say their children feel comfortable in the surroundings and know many of the other children so there are virtually no adjustment problems. Also, school programs tend to be more affordable than the for-profit programs.

On the other hand, some parents feel that it's not good for their child to be in the same place for so many hours. They prefer for their kids to take part in an off-site program so they get a change of scenery and participate in a variety of activities.

Youth service agencies

The YMCA and YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, Campfire Inc. and other youth- and family-oriented groups sponsor school-age child care programs, including before and after school care. These programs tend to be quite popular, and can have waiting lists. They usually offer a variety of activities, including sports and community service projects.

Child care centers

Many local and national for-profit day care center chains also care for children before and after the school day. In addition, some child care centers at corporations and on college campuses have expanded their programs to provide for school-age children. Most will pick your child up from school and take them to the center, and provide a nutritious snack, if you request it. Two possible drawbacks: These programs can be costly, and your child will be in a building with younger children and infants, which means it can be quite noisy.

Family child care homes

Licensed providers who care for younger children in their homes may offer before and after school care for school-age children. You can usually find these by word of mouth or from local advertisements. Many parents like this option because of the homey atmosphere, with a mom there to watch their child. On the other hand, there's no formal structure to this type of care, and depending on how many children are present, it can get boisterous. Also, the hours tend to be less flexible.

In-home care

For those who prefer one-on-one care, the preferred option may be to hire someone (a neighbor, retiree, or a college or high school student, for example) to watch your child in your home. The plus here is that your child will be comfortable and secure in her own home, playing with her own toys. In addition, you can negotiate with the sitter to do laundry or start dinner, if you wish. The cons: This option can be costly, and you are dependent on one person who may not always be reliable.

Another, more affordable, take on this idea is to team up with other parents and share responsibility for child care, either in the form of a co-op where parents take turns providing care or hiring a sitter (or two, depending on the number and ages of children involved) to watch your children in a group.

Others

A growing number of churches and temples offer school-age child care to anyone in the community, regardless of religious affiliation. Some community parks and recreations departments also offer after school care.

How to Find a Quality Program

Once you narrow down the type of care you are looking for, the next step is to find a suitable program. Following are some common ways to get information about programs available in your community. When you visit potential sites, take your child with you, if possible. Then talk with her about the options you have. She may prefer one program to another because her friends go there or because she likes the staff or the range of activities better.

  • Schools/school districts. Your child's principal is an excellent resource. He or she will be acquainted with the range of programs available to students. The school district office may also be a good resource for area programs.
  • Other parents. Word of mouth among parents can be very valuable. Ask friends, neighbors, co-workers and the parents of your children's friends about programs or sitters they have used. Find out which they liked and which they disliked -- and why.
  • Local government. Many community government offices have child care departments that maintain lists of local licensed child care providers.
  • Libraries. Some community libraries keep files on child care programs in the area, or keep lists of local babysitters. Ask the reference librarian to point you toward this information.
  • Child care resource and referral services. These services help match families with child care providers in the area. Some employers provide access to a resource and referral service as an employee benefit. If yours doesn't, try looking in the Yellow Pages under "child care," "school," or "day care." Make sure to find out, up front, if there are charges for the referral service.

Checklist for Parents

Use this checklist of questions to evaluate the programs you are considering. You should look for:

  • A caring staff that genuinely likes children. Talk to parents of children who attend the program and ask: How do their children feel about the staff? Are they patient and fair? Ask the director about the staff's background -- what kind of experience do they have? Have all current and potential staff members undergone a standard background check? Are the staff sensitive to racial, ethnic, religious and gender differences? Do staff members appreciate all cultures and abilities and welcome all children equally? Is there a high staff turnover rate?
  • Interesting and challenging activities. What kind of activities does your child enjoy? Active, outside play? Reading? Arts and crafts? Computer games? Sports? Drama? The best programs have enough variety to accommodate all of these interests.
  • Healthy, safe and comfortable surroundings. Is there enough room for kids to move from one area to another without disturbing other children's activities or projects? Are there quiet areas for conversation, reading or homework, small group areas for games, art and science projects, open areas for noisy and active play? Is there an outdoor play area available on site? Is it well-supervised and protected from traffic? Is the equipment well kept and plentiful?
  • Hours that suit you. How early can you drop off your child in the morning? How late is the center open in the evening? Is care available when school is not in session? Does this cost extra?
  • Reasonable costs. Many programs have a sliding fee scale, based on income. Some offer scholarships or subsidies. Be sure to ask if there's a discount for families with more than one child in the program. Also find out if there are extra fees for sports programs, tutoring or field trips. What is the fee if you pick your child up late?
  • A flexible activity schedule with many interesting things to choose from. Look for a place that offers children their choice of activities and plenty of time to play and run around. Can children spend extra time on projects they are interested in, or are there stop and start times for everything? Can children participate in outside activities like scouting, dance lessons or Little League? If so, is transportation available? Most after school programs emphasize fun, physical activity, and relaxation -- a real break from the school day. If you prefer that your child spend time on homework, look for a program that offers a quiet place to work and tutoring help.
  • A program that is age-appropriate. Are different activities provided for different age groups -- team sports for older children, building blocks for younger ones? Is there a range of supplies and materials available? Are dangerous materials kept out of children's reach? Do they introduce ideas and skills that are right for each age group -- kickball for 6-year-olds, basketball for the 10-year-olds?
  • A program or provider who is licensed or accredited. While school-run programs may not be subject to state licensing, they still should meet or exceed licensing standards for programs run by others. Always ask: Is there a careful check-in and check-out procedure so that children are always accounted for? Is the staff trained in CPR and first aid? How are emergencies handled? Is water available at all times?
  • A discipline policy you agree with. Ask about discipline procedures. How does the staff handle behavior problems? Is there a stated policy? Is it understood and followed by all staff?
  • Small group size. Smaller groups and more staff often indicate a better quality program. The National Association of Elementary School Principals recommends programs have no more than 12 children per staff member -- enough staff so the program can offer a variety of activities and children can get help when they need it.--Sylvia Barsotti

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