Out-of-school time (OST) programs are a safe place for kids when they are not in school. The hours before and after school and when schools are not in session can be challenging and potentially dangerous times for youth who are not under the direct watch of parents, teachers or family. However, those times also represent opportunities for learning and personal enrichment that expose children to new ideas and are a source of inspiration. These programs, which may include daycare, both before- and afterschool care and summer camps, can be the difference in many households to whether a parent or primary caregiver can earn a living or not.
OST programs are ubiquitous with parks and recreation, with 9 in 10 park and recreation agencies serving millions of children every day in our nation. But, for all the positive impact local park and recreation agencies’ OST programs have on children in their communities, there remain many opportunities for greater success by serving more youngsters and expanding program offerings. The NRPA Research team just released the results of a survey of 334 park and recreation agency directors that explores the scope and mission of OST programs and the barriers that keep them for offering more services to a greater number of children.
Out-of-school time programs convey many benefits to their communities, including those benefits surrounding play and physical activity. The most widely cited benefit of OST programs by park and recreation directors is that they offer a safe space to play. Similarly, 46 percent of park and recreation professionals agree that their agencies encourage healthy, physically active lifestyles through play, swimming, exercise and sports.
However, OST is not just about physical activity — these programs also build children’s self-confidence and help them form life-long relationships. Afterschool and summer camps are places that unite children with others in their neighborhood or even those from across town. These same programs also connect youth with mentors and adult role models who may be lacking in other areas of these children’s lives.
OST programs also are places where children can receive educational support and be exposed to supplemental learning opportunities. At many afterschool care facilities, children can complete homework with the support of counselors. In other cases, afterschool and summer camps are places where park and recreation agencies can offer classes and interactive opportunities for learning, such as connecting youth to nature and providing invaluable outdoor experiences.
Key OST Program Offerings
Beyond their most widely known benefit of being a place for children to go while their parents and caregivers are at work, OST programs also offer a broad set of activities and programming that prepare youngsters for the future. Most park and recreation agencies offer opportunities that encourage physical activity (90 percent of agencies) and exposure to arts and culture (89 percent).
Beyond that, OST programs broaden children’s view of the world. For example, two-thirds of park and recreation agencies offer local children programming focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), including environmental topics. Sixty-four percent of OST offerings also encourage healthier lifestyles with programming on nutrition and healthy cooking. One-half of agencies introduce local youth to gardening as part of their OST programs.
OST programs also help local children deal with the many challenges of growing up. For example, agencies include programming focused on:
- Family engagement (70 percent)
- Youth development (61 percent)
- Intergenerational programs/activities (53 percent)
- Mentoring (34 percent)
- One size does not fit all. So, park and recreation agencies tailor some of their out-of-school time program offerings to serve the unique needs of specific populations and audiences. These specialized offerings can include nutrition education, physical activity or sports-based programs, nature experiences, and education and enrichment clubs.
- For example, agencies often create programming specifically targeted to youth of a specific gender, race or ethnicity. Further, agencies also tailor programming by a youth’s specific circumstances, including:
- Youth at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system or other problematic behavior
- Youth with mental illness and/or substance-use disorders
- Homeless youth
- LGBTQ youth
- New American youth
Newer Programming Offerings
As the stewards of public green spaces, local park and recreation agencies have the opportunity and obligation to promote STEM principles through hands-on nature education. Fifty-four percent of park and recreation agencies include STEM programming as a part of their OST offerings.
OST program’s STEM offerings may focus on nature, technology and project-based learning. Fifty-eight percent of park and recreation agencies have OST programming that educates local youth about environmental issues and the role of parks and recreation in conservation and sustainability. Fifty-six percent of agencies tied OST content to technology, including coding, robotics and 3-D modeling. Other commonly delivered OST STEM program offerings include:
- Project-based learning (cited by 48 percent)
- Making and tinkering with STEM (45 percent)
Park and recreation agencies’ out-of-school time programs also serve as gateways to healthy eating and access to sustainable food practices for children. These offerings provide children with a better understanding of how healthy and sustainable food is produced and create life-long healthy eating habits.
Four in five park and recreation agencies include nutrition-oriented activities as a part of their OST offerings. Key offerings include cooking classes, taste testing, experiencing healthy food and other similar activities, operating a garden, and education that links gardening activities with environmental stewardship.
For many benefits that OST programs currently bring to their communities, many park and recreation agencies are hamstrung by an inability to train their staff for the wide and diverse offerings their programs currently offer or could add in the future. Four in five agencies deal with barriers that prevent them and their OST teams from partaking in training opportunities.
Cost is a major barrier to training park and recreation OST staff. Fifty-four percent of agencies lack access to extra personnel to cover their current OST programming when staff is in training. One-half of agencies lack sufficient funding to pay for OST-related training. Further, a quarter of agencies report their staff lacks the required credentials to participate in training.
The survey report highlights the breadth of the benefits from OST programs as they serve millions of children and families in the United States. OST programs are primary providers of before- and afterschool care, as well as summer camps that are invaluable to working families. OST programs provide avenues of discovery for youth. OST programs offer places where children can build self-confidence through mentoring opportunities and thrive from positive adult role models.
Perhaps the biggest benefit from OST programs is that they establish an early relationship between youth and parks and recreation. Eventually, these children will grow into adults and become lifelong consumers and advocates for all that agencies give to the community.
Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.