After-care confidential

What to look for in an end-of-day program

/p> Office manager Jennifer Willard* had never seriously considered putting her daughter, Taylor,* in the after-school Kids’ Club at her school in Aurora, Ont. But that was before she discovered that Taylor, then seven, had been left to supervise three-year-old twins in a pool for 45 minutes on a June afternoon while the after-school sitter gardened out front. Of course, there are plenty of responsible home-care providers, but Willard was spooked. There was a waiting list for the after-school program, but by September, Taylor was in.

Not all kids snag after-school spots as quickly as Taylor did. And, as Willard found, there may be waiting lists for these formal programs, which are often run by charitable organizations such as the YMCA. Many parents go this route because they want the peace of mind licensed care can bring and, of course, the immense convenience of having the program within the school.

But beyond knowing that your child only has to walk down a corridor to a program that meets government requirements, what more should you be looking for in a good-quality after-school program? Read on for more.

*Names changed by request.

Motivated staff A great program is only as great as its instructors. It’s a bonus if there’s a staff member trained in early childhood education (ECE), but that can be hit-and-miss. “Most provinces have virtually no training requirements” for people who work with school-aged children, says Martha Friendly, founder and coordinator of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit in Toronto. “That being said, I’m not sure that just being an ECE does the trick, but at least [ECEs] are attuned to child development.” Two of the best child care instructors she’s ever met, she says, were outdoor education specialists — “natural teachers” — with extensive camp experience. Taylor, now 10, gives a thumbs-up to “Miss Alana,” a former instructor in her after-school program: “She’d always think of fun things to do.”

Freedom to choose “Kids have been in school all day and they need to be able to decide what they want to do, where and how,” says Laurie Landy, an early childhood education program coordinator at Seneca College in King City, Ont. “That might mean relaxing with friends, making a snack or listening to music for a while.” At Family Day Care Service’s after-school program in Parkland Public School in Markham, Ont., 10 minutes of student-led exercises allow kids to let off steam before they sit down to a snack and go on to their chosen activities.

Those activities should vary. If there is one philosophy that pervades programs for school-agers, it’s “one size doesn’t fit all.” At around age eight, kids begin to develop their own interests. “You can have a wonderful art program, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want to do art,” says Friendly. “Those kids might want to do sports.” Landy points out that school-aged kids “want to make something real” — even if, he says, it’s “only oozy green slime.” Whatever turns their crank, the more kids in the program, the greater the range of possible activities.

Input Tapping into kids’ interests goes hand in hand with giving kids a voice, according to ECE instructor Marc Battle of Red River College in Winnipeg. “It’s fundamental, especially for school-age programs, to have a democratic environment so kids see they have a role — they’re not just being babysat,” he says. Battle recalls one site where kids organized a week of March break activities, including a spa day (boys included!) and even rearranging the room’s furniture. Involving kids in decision making this way boosts their buy-in.

A room of their own Look for a dedicated room instead of the school’s lunchroom or gym. School-aged kids, says Battle, “need to leave something behind and feel it’s their place. Imagine the frustration of a kid who’s just figuring out a really great Lego structure and then he’s got to smash it up and put it in the box because the whole program rolls away.” Of course, after-school space can ebb and flow with a school’s population, and a dedicated room isn’t always available.

A homework option Homework can be tricky for after-school staff, who know that parents often want the work done before they pick up their kids at the end of the day — especially if they have to ferry them to other activities. Many of the kids in the after-school program at Parkland P.S., for example, are Southeast Asian, with some taking native language lessons during the week. Some of those kids go to the homework table right after snack. But when Kamini Paskaran, an ECE in the program, knows a family has some flexibility, she might suggest that homework be done at home — perhaps while dinner’s being prepared — so the child can enjoy the program’s activities.

Fresh air and exercise Kids in the after-school program thrive when they can go outside or to the gym. Sometimes this may mean teaming up with students in school-run recreational programs (a smart solution, if the number of after-school kids is small). And while basketball and floor hockey have their place, programs should include less structured play. Battle speaks at conferences and child care centres across Canada about the importance of what he calls “loose parts” — everything from boards, wire and tape to pine cones, shells and interesting gadgets. “Playground space for school-aged kids should be filled with all that kind of stuff,” he says. “It allows for a rich palette.”

Kids, of course, don’t think in terms of palettes — they think in terms of fun. For Taylor, fun at Kids’ Club means turning off the gym lights while playing capture the flag or designing a house from the paraphernalia in the drama centre. And if a kid thinks an after-school program delivers in the fun department, it must be doing something right.

Sorting out the after-school care conundrum? Eighty percent of moms with children aged six to 12 work outside the home in Canada, so there’s plenty of demand. Here are a few options, apart from your kids’ school, that are worth a look:

Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada More than 120,000 children aged six to 12 take advantage of these programs, most of which operate out of community centres, churches and other facilities. Many clubs collect the kids after school and either walk or drive them to the club (bgccan.com).

YMCA Most YMCAs run after-school recreation programs, with some providing walking supervision from school. Go to ymca.ca and look up your local YMCA.

Sports/homework clubs With so much attention on kids’ widening waistlines and flagging fitness levels, some sports facilities have created after-school clubs that offer busing, a workout and homework supervision. For after-school homework help from volunteer tutors, consult your public library or literacy organizations such as Frontier College (frontiercollege.ca).

Neighbourhood sitters Sometimes the best solutions are close to home. Look for stay-at-home parents with kids the approximate age of yours or responsible high-school students. Or contact child care organizations that screen and monitor home-care providers.