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The Importance of After School Programs to Preventative Health

In a world where our youth are exposed to a variety of unhealthy lifestyles and are often on their own when the school day ends, after school programs provide a safe haven for kids with an emphasis on creativity, physical activity, and preventative health and nutrition. By exposing children to new interests and instilling a positive attitude towards fitness, an after school program can impact kids’ lives and pave the way for many mentally and physically healthy teenagers and adults.

The Benefits of an After School Program

After school programs, also called Out of School Time (OST) programs, offer essential approaches to physical and mental wellness. From improving social skills to preventing kids’ involvement in risky behaviors, after school programs have lifelong impacts on children. Here are some of the general benefits of this type of program:

  • Kids build confidence through a program that is more forgiving than school, where social stakes are typically high. With confidence, children are more willing to take risks and try new things, which results in higher self-esteem.
  • OST programs create a sense of community and belonging. If a program accepts students from outside a school district, children can interact with other kids without pre-established cliques and accompanying social issues. However, programs that only admit children within a single school district provide opportunities for kids who know each other to meet in different environments.
  • Social skills improve as after school programs promote respect, support, and cooperation amongst kids. These qualities are modeled by staff members as well, so children learn to develop respectful relationships with adults.
  • Supervision and safety in programs let kids stay busy with positive activities rather than getting into trouble on the streets. Since 70 percent of juvenile crime happens between 3 and 6 PM, a well-developed program can keep children safe, allowing for fewer behavioral problems and better grades.
  • After school programs provide and promote academic support. Often, programs provide structured academic support to instill excellent study and homework habits in children. Many programs offer stress-free and fun courses such as computers or science.

While after school programs typically provide these general benefits, they also offer much more, including holistic personal development techniques that help kids both now and in the future.

Improved Physical Health and Enrichment

A key component of a successful OST program is a strong emphasis on physical activity through various modes of enrichment. Only 25 percent of teenagers get 60 minutes of exercise a day as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After school programs use physical activity to develop kids’ confidence, knowledge, and skills which, in turn, leads to improved behavior and better grades.

These educational programs use holistic development methods through physical activity by offering a variety of opportunities to keep kids moving. Physical activity clubs and intramural clubs are ideal choices. Many youth sports programs offer popular options like biking or walking programs, dance, martial arts, baseball, soccer, flag football, and basketball. Teamwork, motivation, and friendships develop during these activities.

Preventative Health and Nutrition Education

Between regular physical activity and an emphasis on proper nutrition, after school programs are a prime factor in reducing the risk of obesity and establishing healthy eating habits. With nearly 18.5 percent of American children ages 2 to 19 diagnosed with obesity, what OST programs offer is valuable beyond measure.

Children in these programs are empowered to take control of their health. Access is provided to drinking water and nutritious snacks after school, as well. Additional education is also provided by some programs that encourage students to create a school garden or make local farm-to-school connections. These experiences are vital to children, especially the 15 million kids under the age of 18 who live in poverty and often go hungry.

Healthy, regular meals provided by these programs not only combat food insecurity in kids but also reduce their risk of developing obesity or becoming obese as adults. These students are also less likely to engage in health risk behaviors like unsafe sexual activity, smoking, drinking, or substance abuse.

Exercising Creativity through Art-Based Programs

Just as the body needs physical activity, the mind needs creative stimulus, something that art-based activities in after school programs offer. From drawing and painting to STEM-focused activities, OST arts programs provide a wide array of mentally challenging and thought-provoking exercises. Kids can learn about and create rockets one afternoon, and the next, produce a windsock while learning about weather patterns. The children can write and perform a dramatic play, learn to play musical instruments and sing, start a book club, or take part in a Maker Club or woodworking lessons.

Art-based offerings can attract students who might not otherwise be reached in both intrinsic and extrinsic ways. These kids not only develop a deeper appreciation for the arts but a healthier lifestyle and perspective. Many former after school program attendees go on to give back to their community, thus paying it forward to the next generation of kids.

Meditation Instead of Detention

More OST programs, such as the one offered by the nonprofit Holistic Life Foundation in Baltimore, are beginning to teach self-care and mental wellness to kids. Mindfulness activities like meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga teach children and adolescents skills they need to approach life healthily. With the assistance of health educators and staff, children learn how to regulate their emotions and impulses, become more focused and compassionate, and learn to resolve conflicts with peace instead of violence.

These mental wellness and mindfulness skills may help children avoid anxiety as adults. According to the National Institute of Health, 25 percent of 13 to 18-year-olds will develop an anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, mindfulness exercises result in higher grades, less aggression, and positive social behaviors and interactions. Although wellness is a new addition to many after school programs, it has already made significant impacts on children trained to be mindful and to learn to care for themselves.

Preventative Health and After School Programs

Many parents want to be there for their kids after school, but may be prevented from doing so due to employment or other family obligations. That’s where after school programs and their volunteers come to the rescue. The widespread, positive effects that after school programs have on children are vitally necessary to our youth’s futures. With an emphasis on wellness, knowledge, creativity, and physical activity, these programs are preventative measures against obesity, lack of self-care, and risky behaviors. In an afterschool program, a child is more likely to be confident, creative, and headed toward a healthy adulthood.

Tim Esterdahl

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