In afterschool programs there exists a belief that the most beneficial activities for school age children resemble the activities they participate in at school. Many afterschool programs feature scripted crafts, educational games, and homework as the staple offerings for children. Like the typical school day, afterschool programs generally follow a fixed schedule with a specific amount of minutes allocated to eat snack, play outside, listen to educators, and play with friends.
Scheduled and prescribed activities may be beneficial, but with so much structure there is less time for children in afterschool programs to create a learning community. A community that encourages children to practice social skills, nurture friendships, and give back to other children. How can afterschool educators support the building of a learning community in afterschool programs?
To build a sense of community and more collaboration in school age programs, educators could open up the schedule and allow children to make more choices. By offering children the opportunity to live in the moment and pursue their interests supports children who are struggling with too little freedom. A few simple changes over time will open up the opportunities for children and the entire program will benefit. The following are some changes I have always inserted when starting out in a new program. These changes help build community and give the children a sense of purpose.
Follow the children’s interests and create group work using the project approach to learning. An easy way to get started with community building is through project work. Asking for and recording ideas from the children can create ideas for provocations and invitations. By observation and through conversations concrete interest areas can be quickly discovered. Then group projects can be established and offered to all children interested in working together.
Use the older children as helpers or leaders of activities. Older children in school age programs often struggle because their friends are at home playing and they feel the activities for younger children are not for them. Inviting older children to help lead games, teach art technique, or share one of their interests helps the older child feel invested in the program again. Older children look forward to helping others, and the younger children benefit by seeing the older children in a positive light, helping to build community.
Play cooperative group games to learn collaboration. Almost all children in school age programs love active group games. The only time they become a negative experience is when the games focus too much on rules, winning, and losing. By playing cooperative group games that focus on action, teamwork, and participation the learning community will gain fitness, burn energy, relieve tension, and get to know each other better.
Encourage young and older children to meet in the middle. One of the challenges of school age care is the wide variety of ages. It is possible to have children from five to eleven years old in one program. If the program is bigger in numbers, generally the ages are split up to create two or more smaller groups. When the group size is smaller and the interests of the different ages do not align what do you do? When the work in the program follows a child directed model it is easier to ask the older children and younger children to meet in the middle and find common ground. The common bond in this case, is shared interest in a subject or project where all of the children contribute in their own way to the best of their ability.
These are just a few of the core ideas I have used over the years to begin the process of building community in school age programs. My goal is to start with these ideas and see where the group wants to go and follow the children’s lead. Our role is to support and facilitate their growing interests in a calm nurturing way.
How do you create a supportive learning community in a mixed age program?
What are your ideas for creating community with school age children?