It may have looked like we were "hanging out" in the cafeteria or "playing" in the gym, yet we knew in our hearts there was value in the programs and the intentional ways we developed them.
We built supportive environments and worked to build strong relationships. We got to know kids and told them they were "our kids." We created places where they belonged and had ownership—places they were resistant to leave when the program closed for the day. We created spaces of physical and emotional safety. We created trust.
We provided activities based on things kids wanted to learn about and do. We taught them to make complicated friendship bracelets. We taught them the technical rules of basketball. We read and acted out plays, made up songs and created a band, and thought up businesses and had pitch contests.
We connected learning to living.
We helped them think through problems and encouraged them to make better choices after making poor ones. We gave "spirit" points to teams displaying good kickball sportsmanship; we praised the pitcher who rolled an extra time or two to the little kid. We used rock-paper-scissors to settle silly arguments and encouraged "I feel" statements for tough ones.
We facilitated social-emotional growth.
We individualized support approaches. Some kids needed to be our helpers and some kids needed space; we allowed both to exist in our programs. We brought in comics, teenage reading buddies or the neighborhood Therapy Dog group to incentivize literacy development.
We supported learning.
After all this time, brain science shows everything we did and do in our programs was the exact thing kids needed to be successful. The science of learning and development tells us every kid has potential to learn and grow. With a positive environment including positive relationships and ample opportunities—like a high-quality afterschool program—kids will reach their potential and thrive.
Having science validate what we do as professionals and prove us right feels great. It feels even better knowing the work we do every day has a huge impact in kids' lives.
Now, it's time to use this positive feeling and this science as momentum to push ourselves, with ongoing improvement in articulating the science behind what we do, implementing practices we know make a difference, and advocating for afterschool programs and the profession, so high-quality experiences for ALL kids become a daily reality.
Written by Nichelle Harris, NAA Executive member and Managing Director of Education, YWCA Columbus.
Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.