Making school-age child care work successfully can be challenging. The most important ingredient to making it work is the skills we have as directors and caregivers. A director once told me, "A skilled caregiver can run a good program under a tree." It is our responsibility to interpret the needs of children, plan a program based on children's needs, and implement day-to-day activities. Even though a wealth of interesting materials and equipment make a caregiver's job easier, these things do not guarantee success. The following is a list of things you can do to make a school-age care program work.
- Establish high-quality adult-child interaction. Conversations between caregivers and children should be spontaneous, frequent, and enjoyable. Encourage children to talk about their thoughts and feelings by asking questions, listening, and responding to a child's words.
- Listen to the interactions in your program. How many times do we direct, command, or threaten children? Too often, as research has shown. Adults need to respect children's feelings and thoughts, and acknowledge (but not necessarily act on) their wishes by increasing the number of positive, caring conversations and comments.
- Plan and evaluate the program. Most school-age care staff spend a lot of time and energy planning and evaluating their program. This time spent making daily, weekly, and monthly plans ensures a well-balanced program. The less experience a caregiver has, the more valuable planning becomes.
- Attend to details. Who picks up the kindergartners? How long can you stay at the park? What will the children do between the time they finish snack and go outside? Who organized the collection of milk cartons? When will there be enough milk cartons to make a model city? Who prepares snack? When will clean-up time start?
- Balance the activities. You want to make a lot of "things to do" available to the children so that they can make choices. Provide both active and quiet activities, opportunities to work alone and with others, small and large play groups, and a variety of child-initiated and adult-directed experiences.
- Arrange the environment to utilize this age group's ability to make their own decisions and play independently. This can be done by providing the necessary props for different center areas. Put books, magazines, and comic books in a reading corner; cards and checkers in a game area; paper, paste markers, etc. in the art corner; and tools and lumber in the woodworking area.
- Establish a home-like atmosphere. Couches, been bag chairs, rugs, and pillows allow children to lounge and relax. Adding plants, pets, and colorful posters can also provide a nice, "home-like" touch. Remember, how the environment is set up tells the children what to do in that space. The environment itself becomes a guide to play and learning.
- Capitalize on children's natural play interests. Children "play" in response to their developmental needs. School-age children seven years and older, for example, have a desire to do "real work" with "real tools." They are interested in learning to use the stove, vacuum cleaner, and hammer so that they may help with cooking, cleaning, and hanging a picture.
Children also have a natural interest in becoming competent at a particular skill and revel in the pride such an accomplishment brings. It may be tossing a football, playing hopscotch, or skipping rope. Fads like in-line skating and yo-yos become not only skills to learn but also social statements for peer acceptance. Support still another natural play interest by providing materials, equipment, and opportunities for expressive play. These materials might include music for dancing, costumes and props, blocks, sand and water, paints and clay, and wood and scrap materials.
- Let the children help with daily tasks. Teach older children to answer the phone and take messages. Younger children can count the cups and plates needed for snack. These and other "jobs" are developmentally appropriate "real-life" tasks.
- Arrange for enriching opportunities. The strength of the after-school program is its ability to provide opportunities beyond what the average school-ager could do at home. Re-create experiences school-agers might do with their parent, if at home. These activities might include going to the grocery store or post office.
In the school-age program, children have access to a rage of skilled adults, different children of diverse backgrounds, appealing equipment, interesting materials, and unique opportunities such as field trips. Use these components to their fullest to provide both enrichment and fun. Remember, "The key to developing a vital and exciting school-age child care program is to simply find out what the children like to do and what they want to [explore]. Ask them about their interests, observe their activity, listen to their ideas. Then mold program choices around what you have learned" (Standards for Quality School-Age Child Care by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 1993).
Rich Scofield was the editor/publisher of School-Age NOTES, a national resource organization on school-age care.