From mom-and-baby classes to post-kindergarten playdates, there’s lots of stuff for little kids to do to keep them busy and socially engaged before nap time. But once they start school, opportunities for extracurricular engagement start to drop. “There’s a complete mismatch between the end of the school day and the end of parents’ workdays,” says Daljit Gill-Badesha, healthy communities and children’s manager at the City of Surrey Parks, Recreation and Culture. “And children in the six-to-12 age group are more vulnerable at this time than any other. Unfortunately, many kids lack opportunities to be meaningfully engaged and active after school.”
That’s a problem because “kids need after-school time to develop socially, to explore their limits and to manage peer relationships in a creative, open environment,” says Emma Sutherland, executive director of Red Fox Healthy Living Society, a United Way agency in Vancouver that gives Indigenous and inner-city children access to recreation, food and cultural programs designed to foster healthy living, leadership and employment training.
And quality after-school programming doesn’t just benefit kids. “For some parents, especially the working poor, these few hours of childcare, where they know their kids are safe, happy and supervised, can make all the difference,” says Sutherland. “These programs also create opportunities for community bonding for parents who need a little extra social support.” Here’s how to find the best after-school programs in your area.
- Ask kids for input
Gill-Badesha recommends asking kids what they want to do. “When we’re talking to kids, they’ll say, ‘We have ideas, we know what we want. You need to work with us more.’” she says. “These kids have so much potential, and they want places to act on that potential.” Just a trip to your local library can offer them an array of choices, from book and Lego clubs to homework help to games and crafts days.
- Find a team
Most communities offer organized sports teams, but there are also multisport leadership programs funded by non-profit organizations, as well as programs designed to keep kids physically active available through city recreation centres, arenas and pools. “Whether it’s sports-oriented or a form of creative play, play in itself gives children opportunities that lead to mastery, which is so important for self-esteem,” says Sutherland.
- Let them lead
Look for organizations that get kids involved in community leadership projects, giving them the chance to develop their leadership potential. Some great options include Scouts, Guides, and United Way-supported Boys & Girls’ Clubs and community-school partnership programs. At Red Fox, programs geared toward physical literacy are led by Indigenous youth who may then progress to supervisors and, eventually, become staff members. “It’s an important opportunity for all children to see Indigenous youth in leadership positions,” says Sutherland.