Making After School Cool at the YMCA

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By West Cook YMCA

For working parents and their kids, a key time of every weekday is the hours between school and dinner time.

The West Cook YMCA's after school programming aims to fill the hours between school dismissal for children and the end of the work day for parents with enrichment for kids that enhances their overall well-being.

"We focus on engaging the kids in activities that will help them build relationships with each other," explains Elizabeth Lopez, Youth Development Director.

"We intentionally don't have screen-time activities. Kids get far too much of that outside of the Y, so we focus on creating an environment where they're connecting with one another face-to-face. We do intentional small group discussions and activities that allow children to share their thoughts and ideas with each other. Less screen time means we can get kids moving more through physical activity," she adds.  

Eleven-year-old Aiyana has been coming to the Y since she was in kindergarten and says the after school program is a favorite part of her day. "I like hanging out with my friends. Some come from different schools and some come from my school, but I like the different people I meet."

Speaking about the teacher in her fifth through seventh grade YMCA classroom, Aiyana says, "I love Miss Hannah."

"I like all the teachers because if you're feeling down, they will cheer you up. They will make you feel included and they are really supportive. They're a lot of fun to be with. I'm happy they are a part of my life and they've helped me to grow up. I've come here since kindergarten and they all have had a big impact on me," she added.  

Aiyana's thoughts reflect the power of the after school experience at the Y. Sure, the kids get homework help, a healthy snack and plenty of time in the gym and pool, but the After School program is centered around building the kind of relationships that make Aiyana and her friends feel at home.

Rebecca Boblett, the West Cook Y's School Age Coordinator, emphasizes that the After School program aims to use a wide variety of activities to help youth build relationships with each other and the staff. The staff recently implemented four tools to help the kids get the most out of each afternoon at the Y.

"We have small group discussions called 'Y Chats' in which the kids can express themselves, get to know each other, and talk about their passions or something that's bothering them."

Hannah Nelson, Aiyana's teacher, thinks that these discussions are an important part of developing the emotional intelligence of children. "A lot of the kids have different backgrounds. We let them bring up topics so that they can see things from a different perspective. They really get to know each other very well here."

Jadyn, another eleven-year-old in Nelson's class, relates that the classroom fosters an environment that feels good to her. "I like the multi-cultural kids here. No one is a bore. Some people are like brothers and sisters to me. I get a high five from someone all the time. The people are all very supportive."

After school teacher Kinyeta Porter works with the eight, nine and ten- year-olds every day and says that friendships and learning are the mainstays of her classroom.

"The kids form bonds like you wouldn't believe. They find out what they have in common and they share information about their days. They come in excited to see each other every day."

A second tool, aimed at fostering healthy development, is youth planning.

The children in a classroom will select a small group of leaders for an activity, and those leaders are responsible for determining how to implement an activity, from determining what supplies are needed to teaching the class how to participate.

Boblett notes that this pays some immediate rewards. "The kids really take ownership of the activities. They become great leaders. Afterwards, we have time for reflection on what worked and what didn't work. The reflection piece really takes things to the next level and helps the kids look at their world from a peer perspective."

Porter explains that this piece is often illustrated with hands-on activities in her classroom. She encouraged her students to take charge during Black History month. The children chose African-American inventors to research and recreated their own versions of famous inventions.

A third tool for enhancing community is the family board located near the entrance to the classrooms.

The board is used to post information on a day's activities so that parents can see what their kids have been doing when they arrive for pick-up each evening. Kids also can use the board to give positive shout-outs to peers in the program.

The fourth tool focuses on setting the scene.

Boblett explains that this entails making sure each classroom, from kindergarten through the teen years, is set up so that the kids can really thrive in the space. The children are involved in making decisions about room set up, which Boblett notes makes them feel an ownership of the space and ensures that everyone feels comfortable in the classroom.

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