Virtual after-school activities for kids: What parents need to know

By: Gerard Dawson

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If you’re worried that remote learning means after-school programs and activities are officially canceled, there’s good news. Since the pandemic, more after-school activities for kids have gone virtual. And while these new online offerings might not have the benefit of fresh air or team huddles, the wide variety of programs includes some that cover very niche interests. (Advanced Viper Biology, anyone?)

For years, research has shown that after-school activities can help kids reduce risky behavior and explore a new interest, as well as boost their concentration, confidence and school performance. And even though school and work have changed drastically, there is still a window of time—the after-school hours—that parents have to manage for their kids.

Throughout the past summer, many parents enrolled their kids in camp-style online classes that allowed them to explore their interests—gymnastics, music, languages, science and more. A surge of interest is meeting an increase in options: For instance, this year thousands of new teachers and organizations have joined an online virtual after-school service called Outschool (think master class for kids), so they can add their offerings to Outschool’s community of thousands of families.

Consider the following tips when talking with your kid about filling this space in their day with a new kind of virtual after-school activities.

Kids don’t want to be forced into things.

Abandon your personal dreams and interests. This is not the time to be talking your kid into taking SAT prep or picking up that third language.

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Instead, look for serendipitous moments. If they’re walking through the living room and stop to watch a TV news segment about a natural disaster—maybe there’s an interest in climate change, or the environment. Would they be interested in learning more?

For younger kids, encourage them to take a class in something they’re constantly asking you to buy them. For example, if they’re always asking for new clothes, consider an after-school program in fashion. If they’re always on their phone with a cartoon animation app, consider a class in animation.

You’re not limited by location anymore.

Some local programs may have already adapted to virtual experiences, but if your child’s interests are evolving, consider finding a class online that better suits their interests.

Global programs offer access to more options, more experts, and the potential to learn with or from someone you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Especially now, young kids are only around a limited group of people in their immediate family and neighborhood. For example, Outschool has a global class about bugs where teachers mix the virtual with the physical and ask kids to go outside and find bugs to share with the class. A young kid could see bugs—and people too—from other states and places around the world.

You can find like-minded kids.

Kids’ social lives are limited. They might be stuck interacting with their families or neighbors. And a kid might think they have a weird interest that no one else does. Online, they can find another person with their specific interest, then motivate each other and form a friendship.

Virtual after-school activity needs by age

Preschool (ages 3 to 5) — Activities at this age should be based on simple interactions between adult supervisors and kids. Activities should be based around single, simple concepts, and should be scheduled for short periods of activity with frequent breaks or changes. For example, a story-time group is an appropriate virtual after-school activity for preschoolers.

Kids (ages 6 to 11) — Activities for kids can rely more on interactions and discussions between kids. Regular meetings with the same group can help children form friendships and develop social skills. Online book clubs, or groups based on interests like Pokémon or Minecraft, are great for this age.

Preteens (ages 12 to 14) — Considering the preteen mind, it’s important for a program for this age to be based heavily on the preteen’s interests or peer group. If they can’t choose the topic or the peer group themselves, it probably won’t work.

Teens (ages 15 to 17) — Virtual after-school programs for teens can be less structured, while still based on a teen’s preferred topic or peer group. Try giving your teen more ownership of the process. Give them a budget for the amount of time and money they can invest and then allow them to browse the options and make a plan for their after-school time. Treat them like an adult as much as possible so they’re invested in their choice. 

Looking for a good after-school program? It’s as simple as a Google search.

When it comes to virtual after-school options, it’s important to consider your family’s needs as well as your kids’ ages and interests. Although families face unique challenges in trying to balance school, work and life, there have never been more engaging after-school activities available for children of any age. 

Worried about your kid and screen time? Learn the difference between screen time and screen use.

Set age-appropriate guidelines for screen time with some help from the Family Online Safety Institute.

About the author(s):

Gerard Dawson is a teacher, parent and writer for Outschool. Learn more about his work at www.GerardDawson.com.

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