After school activities can change a child's life

By Janet Benavente, September, 2006
Colorado State University Extension
Family and Consumer Science, Adams County

In recent years, the number of after-school programs has increased in the United States. Twenty-first Century Community Learning Center funding and the No Child Left Behind Act have provided funding and encouraged growth in these kinds of programs. In 2001, four out of ten children in kindergarten through eighth grade participated in after-school activities at least once a week. Unfortunately, this means that between eight and fourteen million children and youth are alone and unsupervised after school.

The Afterschool Alliance's recent examination of multiple studies of after-school program impact found solid evidence that:

  • After-school programs keep children and youth safe and protect them from negative and unsafe behaviors.
  • After school programs help working parents.

After-school activities help youth develop social skills, improve academic performance, and help them build strong supportive relationships with adults other than their parents. Young children benefit especially from the social skills development and improved academic skills. This leads to improved conflict management and better school attendance. Middle-school aged youth who continue to participate in after-school activities are more likely to be engaged in school and attentive in class and less likely to be involved in violent behavior at school.

Participation in after-school activities continues to be a benefit for students right through high school. Adolescents in after-school programs are optimistic for the future and have more interest in school than peers who are unsupervised after school. After-school program participation also helps to keep youth from skipping school and experimenting with alcohol, drugs and sexual activity. In fact, the 1995 Westat, Inc. analysis of national data found that students who spend no time in after-school activities are 49 percent more likely to have used drugs and 37 percent more likely to become teen parents than students who spend one to four hours per week in after-school activities. After-school programs prevent pregnancy by promoting sound judgment, offering health education, and providing positive alternatives to sexual activity according to "Child Trends Research Brief," May 2002. Furthermore, if youth stay involved in after-school activities through adolescence, they are more likely to attend college, vote and volunteer as adults according to Zaff and Moore, et al. in the "Journal of Adolescent Research," in 2003.

There are two reasons that after-school activities have these positive benefits for adolescents. First, adolescents need guidance to grow into productive adulthood and after school programs and activities keep youth busy between 2 and 6 p.m., the times when adolescents are most likely to commit crimes, be crime victims, or participate in sexual activity. Second, after school programs can provide extra time for career exploration, skill development, service learning and internships to prepare them for college and work.

It is estimated that every dollar spent on after school programs will save taxpayers $3 because of reductions in youth crime, teen parenthood and school dropout rates. This estimate is based on studies done across the country including Alabama, California, and Washington D.C. This cost benefit is in addition to the life-long love of learning, improved level of education, and contributions in civic life that results from participation in after-school programs and activities.

Researchers have also identified the characteristics of the most effective after-school programs and activities. Robert Halpern, of Chicago's Erikson Institute for Graduate Study in Child Development, names two characteristics of effective programs:

  • They support and complement classroom learning by emphasizing social, emotional and physical development.
  • They provide opportunities for informal learning.

Other research identifies these additional characteristics of successful after-school programs:

  • Provide positive emotional climate without harsh, punitive controlling adult supervision.
  • Provide activities that support socialization with peers.
  • Include time for physical and creative activity.

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Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014