I’ve always felt fortunate that my job allowed me to pick my kids up from school at 3 and the rest of day was ours to enjoy but in second grade my daughter started asking why she couldn’t go to after-school care. What??? I give you snacks, help you with homework, plan the occasional play-date, and take you on fun errands to the grocery store. What do they have that I don’t? So when The Children’s Courtyard invited me to tour their School Age program and see what they are all about, I was eager and curious to learn what was making Clare yearn to join them.
I was blown away by the fun these cute kiddos were having. While my work schedule doesn’t justify after-school care at this time, or before school care, they offer that too, I thought I could infuse some of their magic into our own routine and someday, if I have to go back to 9-5, I would feel good knowing the kids were having an enjoyable and enriching afternoon.
Here are 10 ways that I plan to improve our after school experience this year, inspired by The Children’s Courtyard and their My Best Self! Program, where school-age students focus on goal-setting and reflection, complemented by homework support, team-building opportunities, and physical activity.
1. Homework first: So many people I know, including the folks at The Children’s Courtyard, insist on homework as soon as kids leave school, I’ve always let them have a break. I’m now thinking that if all of the kids did it right away, it would open the rest of the day for carefree fun. It would also create a peaceful environment for optimal focus in our otherwise kid-crazy space. The other great thing I learned on my tour was that the children are encouraged to record assignments and projects in their folder so that the instructors can help them stay accountable in meeting their deadlines.
2. Healthy and inviting snacks: While I can’t recreate The Children’s Courtyard’s 50’s style diner, I’m inspired to prepare snacks ahead of time, or at least plan a schedule of options. Kids like routine, mine do for sure, so knowing that we are having carrot sticks and hummus on Mondays would comfort them and steer us away from the junk food debate.
3. Play stations: In all my tours of pre-schools and learning centers over the years, I’ve noticed the trend of “stations.” It allows the kids to all have a chance to do each activity and gives them the opportunity to have intimate playtime with just a few friends rather than a crazy crowd. One epiphany I had during my tour is that this system also helps keep toys organized and separated. I’m now working on a way to give different toys their own space in the house. The play kitchen and doll house stay in the play room. The Legos and train set are at home in Gordon’s room, and board games and puzzles are moving to the hall closet. The game of “how can we mix up all these toys into one pile and make them completely uninviting” is no longer welcome.
4. Rock the vote: The science room at The Children’s Courtyard held a colorful cage with two friendly pets. I loved to hear that they let the kids vote on what kind of pet to get and these cute critters won. It was really sweet to hear these gals talk about their after school pets and how they take care of them. Empowering the kids with a voice on what we do will definitely get them vested in what we do.
5. Guided screen time: Kids (or should I say humans?) will gravitate to the screen and stay there if they are allowed. I loved that each grade only got one day of the week in the computer room. This meant some days there was no screen time at all. No debates about screen time. No arguments about screen time. When they are having some blissful screen time, I love the idea of playing together, finding new apps, playing games, watching shows and listening to music. The tablet is no longer a babysitter but a toy to share.
6. Up our arts & crafts game: Holy moly, I’m an art nerd so the art room is definitely where I would want to stay all day. There was even a kiln! While I don’t have a kiln at home, spending some time to lead art projects with the kids is definitely on the agenda this school year. Since my girls especially will search out creative projects I usually just let them have their way. Imagine where the art learning would go with some guidance… but really I do think I need the kiln.
7. Open door play date: My husband fondly remembers the way play “dates” worked when he was a kid in Oklahoma. Basically, you walked out into the street and played with kids, whoever was around, until it was dark. It doesn’t work that way anymore but I suspect that what Clare finds most inviting about after school care is the opportunity to socialize with a bunch of kids (or just one best friend) every day. Both of the girls that I interviewed said their favorite part of being Jr Counselors at The Children’s Courtyard (4th grade and older) was spending time with other kids. This year I plan to pick a day each week that the kids can always invite over each and every one of her friends. Open door policy. The whole neighborhood can hang out. No formal invitations required. Yell over the fence when you want them back. I better stock up on carrots and hummus.
8. Calendar: That leads me to a schedule. We keep a schedule of sports practices and after school classes but rarely plan fun outings and play-dates in advance. At a place like The Children’s Courtyard, they have to have a schedule to keep things organized, at home it would not only keep us organized but would ensure that we get to the fun stuff and keep promises of our own family field trips.
9. Sports and games: How fun to have so many kids around that you can start a pick up game of soccer (or the dreaded dodgeball) at any time. Of course participating in sports keeps you healthy but it also teaches you how to be a good loser (and winner.) We will be sure to play games until losing doesn’t hurt quite so much this year.
10. Supervised independence: As I walked around the center at The Children’s Courtyard, I noticed that the instructors (both girls AND GUYS! NICE!) were helping where needed, inspiring creative activity and meeting kids needs, but they were not hovering. Kids had a chance to do their own thing, learn their own lessons, and resolve their own issues. Just like the best parents do at home.
So thanks for the tour guys, I learned so much about what you do and can’t wait to bring some of what I learned home this school year!