Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow


People love traditions, the customs and beliefs that are inherited and passed down though generations by example or word of mouth. Traditions are an important aspect of society and give people a touchstone to guide their words, thoughts and actions. Family, work, and social groups pass along traditions and the practices of their tradition are the fabric of who they are.

In school age care, we have many traditions of practice. Being directly involved in these traditions everyday, I wondered if the core practices of school age care would ever evolve? Will educators continue use the same practices as when the field started over 100 years ago? I took some time to research my question and here is what I found…

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the first afterschool programs started. The original programs were boys clubs, held in church buildings and other commercial buildings available at the time. These clubs featured small gatherings of boys and volunteers. The clubs were a necessary social service as the result of a reduction in child labor and the emergence of compulsory education.

As more children in big cities went to school, there was a gap in the hours when school ended and the family gathered at home. The options for children were few, and many children took to the streets of the city and were exposed to the activities of the day. The children liked their newfound freedom, but parents and civic leaders were concerned about what the children were experiencing without supervision on the streets.

Big city reformers started examining the time afterschool and created programs to provide children with a healthy alternative. Out of this idea came two types of programs. The organized play movement and boys clubs. The play movement was established to be a counterpoint to the structure of school and offered children the opportunity move freely and play with other children on newly created and planned playgrounds designed for that purpose. Boys clubs is the model for our school age practice today. The original boys clubs were drop in programs where children could come and participate in structured play activities.

Early in their evolution, boy’s clubs offered a wide variety of practical skill programs on a rotating basis. Skills like woodworking, electronics, camping skills, cooking, camera work, and printing. For girls there was sewing, knitting, housekeeping and other domestic arts. The classes were offered as a supplement to reading, homework, play, and socializing.

In the long history of afterschool programs the numbers of children attending and the availability of programs fluctuated with the events of the day. Two world wars, a depression, and other factors contributed to the presence or absence of these services for children and families.

After World War II the rise in employment, growth in the economy, and improving living conditions signaled a change to our society. More people worked in cities and the suburbs. As these new communities expanded, new schools were built and the need for afterschool programs blossomed. However, afterschool programs remained primarily the same, offering a place for children to come and engage in preplanned activities, homework, and playground play.

Personally, I attended one of these programs. The program was offered for free at my school in one of the empty classrooms. The city hired student educators who came each afternoon to teach us arts and crafts, set up the Ping-Pong table and play sports with us. I loved the experience and that program is the reason for my work today.

As much as I loved the program, I have to ask the question, is there something else we could be offering school age children?

Many programs in recent years, have felt pressure from schools, some parents, and educational reformers to make afterschool and extension of school with academic offerings and program activities created around academic standards. Granted, more academic programming is a change to the traditions of afterschool care, but is this a change for the better?

I am not looking for school age care to change for the sake of changing. The traditions of our work has helped and supported millions of children and families over the history of our practice, but I still wonder why school age care has not evolved as a practice like the work that is being done in early care and education?

In infant, toddler, and pre-school care I see innovation and the willingness to try new practices. Reggio, Waldorf, Montessori, and Lifeways are just a few of the innovative philosophies and programs in early care and education who seek to evolve, experiment, research, and implement new ideas and offerings to help children succeed and grow as the society and culture evolved. In school age care we are still offering the same choices that were offered in the early 1900’s and largely for the same reasons.

I have visited and worked in some very innovative school age programs but these programs are the outliers. The traditional model still holds true. New bells and whistles are added in today’s school age care to entice parents to join programs like computers or other technology, promises of STEM offerings, and fancy field trips, but the actual practice of working with the children is stuck in a time warp.

How do we as school age providers and educators get unstuck and evolve and experiment with our practice? What is lacking in the school age culture that has most of the programs of today look like something from the turn of the century? I do not know all of the answers, but I would like to start the conversation for the benefit of the children and families we serve.