How to Redefine Structured After-school Activities So Kids Will Be Engaged

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(Part 1 of 2)

Too often in out-of-school time programs, students are assigned to groups they can never leave, forced to do an activity with that group, forced to attend homework time when they don’t have homework and asked to participate in activities they complain are for “babies.” Then they rejoice for their 45 minutes of free time before being picked up, often commenting, “Today was boring,” “This program sucks” or “I don’t like it here.”

Though these comments are often disregarded, if this is common it is, in fact, valuable feedback, and the students are right: The program is low quality and something needs to be done.

I propose evolving and thinking about our activities differently through the lens of Project Based Learning (PBL). There are challenges in implementing a different way of designing and leading activities, but I have suggestions to support this process.

It is worth noting that, like any great building, a strong foundation is the key to success. Consistent and reliable staff, confident in their large-group and behavior management skills, who demonstrate consistently positive adult-child interactions, and a strong schedule are the foundational components needed for the success of any program. These are the bolts and beams that hold everything together.

A program will have a hard time growing and sustaining itself at higher levels if quality implementation of these components is not in your program. Any program interested in improving should ensure that the previously suggested characteristics are in place before allocating time and resources fully into increasing program quality through activities.

Why redesign program activities?

Have you ever walked into a program and immediately notice the students are not having fun? Students are facing the front of the room and the instructor is explaining or doing an activity for students to see, but they never captivate them or engage them in the process. The supplies, in a corner, sit in a box as the minutes pass by and the instructor continues to talk at students, often about a topic they cannot identify as relevant to their lives. Students wait, and wait, before they can get their hands dirty. Finally, when the students can start the activity the instructor simply passes out a coloring sheet or a stencil to cut out, vaguely representing the concept. This is an activity an entire group is doing and there is no way to know if students even want to be doing it.

One must step out of their program and observe the quality of activities as objectively as possible to decide whether or not to reinvent their program activities. Observers might look for specific indicators that would suggest a program activity needs intervention.

These indicators are not an assessment tool, but assessment tools that include these indicators exist and can be used to evaluate whether or not an activity is of high quality. These indicators may include:

  • Example projects being given for all students to copy
  • Staff-led activities: students facing the front of a room and a teacher explaining/doing for most of the activity
  • Little to no interaction between students
  • Little to no collaboration between students
  • High dropout or low enthusiasm from day to day for projects
  • Staff have planned every lesson without student input
  • Limited materials available for each activity
  • Activities that require staying in one space or utilizing one skill set (only computers, only outside, only art table) rather than thinking about how to engage each learner
  • Students do not have choice in the final product of the activity, and/or the route to accomplish the activity
  • Little to no variation in the types of activities being offered each day.

Additionally, the length of student engagement is often an indicator of activity quality. For example, if students are finishing the project too quickly and want to move on to something else and have nothing to do, or back-up plans and irrelevant time-fillers are consistently being used, the activity is likely of low quality. If behavior problems consistently occur, students are likely disengaged.

If a group of students participating in an activity is mostly homogenous (provided that students can select activities at all), and the project does not appeal to a wide range of students, the activity is likely low quality as well. If many or all of these aspects occur consistently in program activities, then it is likely there needs to be new activities designed to increase interest, engagement and fun in the program.

Project based learning

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge,” as the Buck Institute for Education defines it. Research shows that PBL enhances learning, critical thinking skills and student engagement.

Using PBL techniques in after-school programs allows students to explore their interests, learn essential skills, dive deep into projects that extend beyond one day and have fun simultaneously. After-school programs are uniquely situated to be able to enhance learning students are doing during the school day by facilitating the development of additional essential skills and enhancing curriculum and topics already being taught during the day.

Utilizing PBL within program activities can, therefore, help students pace themselves, develop persistence and work toward a feeling of mastery of learning. PBL components are what we used as the foundation for our activities. PBL has shown itself in the classroom to be effective in students’ engagement, learning and fun. Therefore we chose PBL to base our after-school curriculum on.

The essential project (activity) design elements or components for the gold standard of PBL, which we based our curriculum on, are:

  • Key knowledge, understanding and success skills: The project is focused on student learning goals, including standards-based content and skills such as critical thinking/problem-solving, collaboration and self-management. 
  • Challenging problem or question: The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.
  • Sustained inquiry: Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources and applying information.
  • Authenticity: The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards or impact — or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests and issues in their lives.
  • Student voice & choice: Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.
  • Reflection: Students and teachers reflect on learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
  • Critique & revision: Students give, receive and use feedback to improve their process and products.
  • Public product: Students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

Omid Amini lives in Denver, working with Denver Public Schools in the OST field providing support to various schools by implementing and sustaining high-quality programming.