Photosanity founder Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick shares her tips and advice for selecting an after school plan that works for your child and your family.
So, you finally made it – your kids are in elementary school! You no longer have to worry about child-care right?! Wrong.
If you’re a full-or part time working parent, unless you have extremely family-friendly working hours (or perhaps work in a school yourself), school generally lets out from as early as 2.30pm, so you are STILL left with the after-school conundrum. So, what do you do with your kids in those hours between when they get out of school and when you get home from work, which could be as many as five hours or even more, depending on your work schedule.
And even if you’re a full-time stay-at-home parent, if you have several kids in different schools you might STILL have an issue to resolve if there are conflicting pick-up times that make it impossible for you to pick-up all your kids at the regular time. (And let’s not even talk about all the holidays and extra days off school, snow days, sick days and winter and spring break and the summer.)
Staying focused on the after-school conundrum, you basically have two choices:
1) Hire an after-school sitter (or enlist friends or relatives)
2) Sign your child up for after-school programs
There are pros and cons to each option, so here are some things to consider, acknowledging that having choices is in itself a privilege that not all parents have.
Cost: Yes, this is often the first thing to look at. After-school programs are often very cost-effective, especially if you only have one child, but don’t assume it’s the cheaper option, especially if you have more than one child. Of course, cost isn’t necessarily the only factor to consider, but doing a realistic cost comparison is a good place to start.
Logistics: After-school programs can be very enticing, especially if your school offers a good program, but the problem with many after-school programs is that they only go until 6 pm.
Can you or another caregiver consistently be out of work and at your child’s school by 6 pm to pick them up? Some parents can, but if you have a typical 9-5 job where actually leaving at 5 pm is far from the norm and 6 pm is more realistic at best, AND you have a commute, a 6pm pick-up just isn’t in the cards!
This can impact the cost if you have to hire a sitter to pick your kids up from after-school anyway.
Your child’s needs: Is your child tired after a full day of school and in need of some downtime, or do they have tons of additional energy and love having a lot of structured activities? Are they extroverted and ready to spend more time around other people, or are they more introverted and would do better with some quiet time at home? Does the after-school program offer downtime and outside play time as part of their program? Are the activities matched to their interests?
Last week we talked about the importance of balancing time for unstructured play with enrichment activities. It might work well for your child to get all their enrichment during the week and have more time at the weekend, or it might work better the other way around.
The weather: Yes, really, this is something to consider! For example, in the winter months, an after-school program might have more appeal than in the summer when your kids could get outside more with a sitter.
Siblings: If your kids are at separate schools, you might prefer to hire a sitter so they can hang out together after school. If they’re at the same school and can sign up for some of the same activities, then an after-school program offers the same benefit of giving them time together.
Here’s how all these factors came into play in our family: Neither my husband or I can consistently be at school by 6 pm every day to pick up our kids, which meant that relying solely on the after-school program was not an option for us. So we knew we needed to hire an after-school sitter.
Initially, when our older son was in kindergarten, and our younger son was in a different pre-school, we wanted them to be able to hang out after school together, get outside and play, and have unstructured time, so we hired a sitter to pick them up every day. It was also cheaper to do this than put them in two different after-school programs at their respective schools.
Now that our oldest son is in 2nd grade, and our younger son is in K at the same school, due to some idiosyncrasies with how the bus and after-school scheduling and billing works, it is still cheaper for us to have them take the bus home and then be picked up by a sitter from the bus stop. However, we have signed them up for one or two days of after-school programming, purely for the enrichment, and then our sitter picks them up from school at 5 pm – this actually costs us more, but it’s a convenient way for them to get enrichment while leaving our weekends open for downtime, unstructured time, and family time.
Two days a week of structured after school programming actually felt like a lot because our boys are very active and need to get good running around outside time. We were going to eliminate after-school altogether for the third semester when the weather is warmer, but there was one class they really wanted to do so we kept that.
Also, I think that if they had really LOVED doing after-school, as I know some kids do, we would have considered signing them up for more classes, but they seem to prefer getting the bus home and going to the playground, and since that is actually cheaper for us, it’s a win-win.
Choosing the right after-school program is important. Once you’ve decided that you’re going to do some after-school, how do you choose what activities to sign up for? I recommend thinking about how involved you want them to be in the decision-making process, which is not always easy! It’s a tough balance between letting your kids choose what they want to do, and gently pushing them out of their comfort zone sometimes and encouraging them to try new things. In the end, you have to make the call, depending on your child’s personality and their age, but I recommend looking for genuine interest in an activity rather than superimposing your own interests and biases. Look for clues of specific fear or lack of interest, as opposed to more general fears of the unknown. You’ll know when to push it and when not to… but be ready to be wrong about it! Our school has a helpful add/drop period at the beginning of each semester if a child and an activity really don’t mesh.
There are lots of resources to help you choose an after-school sitter. This could, of course, be a whole blog post by itself (Park Slope Parents has a great guide on hiring a nanny but in brief, what my husband and I have found is that it is worthwhile to put the time in upfront to interview lots of candidates and to do background and reference checks as well as a “shadow day” (you pay them to shadow you as you walk through the afternoon’s routines and you get a better feel for how they mesh with your kids than you can in an interview) before bringing them on board. It’s also worth putting a contract in place (we used the Park Slope Parents sample work agreement), setting clear expectations, and having a three month review, especially if this is someone you are relying on to pick your kids up while you’re at work (as opposed to someone for date nights or to help out while you’re at home getting other things done). We’ve also found that it is worth paying the going rate and not trying to save money by getting someone at a lower rate if that is financially possible for you.
Have a backup option. After-school is a great backup option if a sitter is sick, or cancels, or is away. It’s also really great to get to know the families of your kids’ friends so you can help each other out when needed. We’ve had other families pay our sitter a little extra to pick up their kid(s) along with ours (make sure you okay this with your sitter first before offering them out!) And I’m always happy to host play-dates and pick up extra kids on the days I’m picking up the kids, and asking for the return favor when I need it. Our bus also has a group text message going so if someone is running late, they can text the group to hold the bus in the morning, or hold the kid in the afternoon.
Alethea Cheng Fitzpatrick is a family photographer turned photography coach for parents. She founded Photosanity to help parents find joy & connection through photographing their kids. Born and brought up in the UK, Alethea lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her two sons, Liam, age 8, and Jack, age 5.
Alethea has taught workshops at the Apple Store, Brooklyn Baby Expo, Brooklyn Babybites (now Mommybites) and online through Photosanity.com and other platforms. She has been interviewed on 1010WINS and featured in The Daily Mail, Cool Mom Picks, Apartment Therapy, Ask Moxie and Mom365.