By Sam Piha
During this past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an even greater appreciation of the informal learning environment in afterschool (sometimes referred to as expanded learning). We know that afterschool is not in competition with classroom learning, rather it is a complement. Afterschool learning has several advantages, which are described below.
Topics of Interest:
Afterschool programs have the flexibility to pursue topic areas that young people find personally interesting and relevant. These topics include the sciences, visual and performing arts, civic engagement and community service, and physical activity—all of which can easily be aligned with school standards. In many communities, the ability of schools to offer these subjects is adversely affected by budget shortfalls and the need to shore up student performance in language arts and mathematics. Afterschool programs ensure that children who cannot afford fee-based enrichment programs have access to these important learning opportunities.
Learning in Small Groups:
Afterschool programs have child-to-adult ratios that are lower than most classrooms. Small group settings enable adults to focus on the individual needs of young people, form personal supportive relationships, and engage young people in hands-on, experiential learning.
Time to Learn: Some learning requires more time than can be allowed in a classroom setting, especially in middle and high school, where youth move from class to class. This learning involves projects that require extra time to plan, to work within a larger team, to analyze problems and persevere until solutions are found. Some learning requires reflection on important lessons that were gained and the opportunity to share and be recognized for one’s accomplishments. This sharing may come in the form of a presentation, a play or a recital, an art exhibition or service project, which may allow children to be acknowledged in ways they never experienced during the school day. Afterschool programs have flexible schedules that can allow young people to immerse themselves in a single program activity for the entire afternoon, if needed. In other cases, young people can participate in projects that build over several weeks or more. These kinds of projects promote important skills such as goal setting, project planning, teamwork, time management, and self- assessment.
Learning Beyond Place:
Afterschool programs have the flexibility to go outside, beyond the walls of their facilities, using the surrounding neighborhood as a classroom. They are also able to bring the community into the school, by enlisting the talents and resources of individuals and surrounding businesses. Connecting to the local community broadens the variety of activities and experiences available to young people, honors the value of their own communities, provides young people with opportunities to contribute to others, and allows community members to see the learning and positive development of their children in action.
Active Learning: The learning environment in afterschool is often less formal than in school. Children are allowed to learn by doing and learn as part of a larger team. This approach is very attractive and motivating to young people who may be struggling in the traditional classroom setting.
Parental Access and Involvement:
Because programs extend into the late afternoon and early evening, afterschool staff can often engage young people’s family members in ways most schools find difficult. Afterschool programs can serve as a communications bridge between the school and parents, thereby promoting a stronger partnership between them, especially when the afterschool staff live in the same community and share the language and culture of the parents and guardians. Afterschool workers are in a position to use parents as resources to better understand the experiences and needs of participants and to provide input on programming.
Diverse Teachers and Resources:
Afterschool programs rely on a wide variety of workers, including certified teachers, paraprofessionals, youth workers, college students, and community members. This flexibility allows afterschool programs to engage a diverse pool of workers that reflects the cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds of the young people in the program. These workers often present ideas, activities and resources that make education and learning feel relevant and compelling to young people, and thus inspire greater interest and motivation during the school day.
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