When my oldest son started kindergarten, I struggled to find just the right schedule for the time between school pick-up and bedtime. We were kind of all over the place for a while, never really knowing if he should play first, snack first, or even if we should be doing the same things the same way each day after school. Ideally, we needed a routine, but I had no idea where to start. Nobody gave me anything like this list of after-school routine ideas until I ultimately put a call-out on social media begging for my experienced friends to weigh in. They definitely delivered, and in time, my son and I found our own groove for his after-school routine.
You may find that your after-school schedule looks different than that of your friends or your kid's friends, but Maureen Healy, child psychologist, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, and parenting coach at Growinghappykids.com tells Romper that an after-school routine should really be based around the needs of the individual child. "Boys and girls need time to decompress after school, which may look different for every child. The goal is to build that 'downtime' into the day so your son or daughter can rest, relax, and recharge after a full day of school," Healy says.
Using these seven after-school routine ideas can help kickstart that decompression for your kid as soon as you leave the pick-up line, and help you put together the routine that works best for you and your family. Which means that whether you're home with your child after school or they're in the care of someone else, you can still find a way to make their routine work for them.
1. Food First
My son is always ravenous after school. This was especially true during kindergarten when his lunch was ridiculously early and his early afternoon snack was not enough to tide him over. Kids need to fuel their bodies in order to sustain them for the entire school day and any activities after school — even if that's just playing at home and doing homework. An immediate snack after school to keep their energy level up is never a bad idea.
While your kids might be begging for something sweet to eat after working hard at school all day, Angie Weiss, the nutrition services director at Wichita Falls Area Food Bank in Texas, tells Romper that parents should encourage foods with energy-boosting qualities after school. It's tempting to reward kids for their hard work at school with a sweet treat, but Weiss says that reaching for "less candy and more whole grains, veggies, fruit, and lean protein" is ideal and will prevent late-afternoon sugar crashes. If your child is at a day care center or with a sitter after school, prep some snacks ahead of time so your kiddo knows what to expect.
2. Provide Some Responsibilities
Incorporating responsibilities for kids into their after-school routine can provide an opportunity to build kids' self-esteem and sense of accomplishment, according to Jenn Simms, a career nanny in Austin, Texas, who has been caring for children and helping develop their after-school routines for more than 10 years.
"Kids and everyone really work better on routines, but if you have a routine and you give the kids responsibilities (putting shoes away and lunchbox on the counter, for example), it helps keep the adults' lives organized and flowing better, too," Simms says. "Also, giving kids responsibilities or having them help pick out a snack or what not gives them some self-esteem and a purpose, and they like feeling like they can accomplish things as we do. They are willing and want to help if you give them the chance and start it young." But don't stress if you aren't home with your children right after school. Responsibilities can happen once you're all together, too.
3. Get Homework Out Of The Way
Simms also suggests that parents or caregivers help their child with homework right off the bat. She says that minimizing distractions and making sure kids focus during homework time is key. With one particular child in her care, Simms said homework time usually went like this: "I would have her siblings play upstairs and have her sit at the counter or table while I made food so there were no distractions. She would do her homework first, since that was what she hated doing, and doing it first got it out of the way."
Mom of four Crissy Hardin of Austin, Texas, says that her kids complete their homework right after school for several reasons. "They won't feel as rushed or have to stay up later to complete it if they do it straight away," she tells Romper. "Additionally, if the school sends any notices about materials needed or projects, it gives me a chance to get it taken care of then. In my opinion, it reduces stress to get it out of the way ASAP."
4. Chores Can Happen
Hardin tells Romper that making room in her kids' after-school schedule for chores is important for her family. "Homework and snack first and foremost. Then they need to complete their daily chores before any electronics," Hardin says. "We keep it the same every day during the school year so they know what their priority is. If they do it this way, they have plenty of time to relax and have fun because their responsibilities are already complete. Also a routine helps keep chaos at a minimum."
In a report for Psychology Today, Nancy Darling, Ph.D. and author of Thinking About Kids, wrote that children who help with household chores are reaping the benefits of a feeling of accomplishment as well as the feeling of "contributing to all of our greater good." A Michigan State University study also concluded that assigning children age-appropriate chores to complete daily can lead to a more balanced household, and leaves more time for parents and children to spend together.
If you find it hard to keep your kids motivated to do chores after they've been at school all day (because frankly, they may be exhausted), it may be beneficial to remind them that getting their chores done will allow them to spend the rest of their evening doing things they enjoy.
5. Flexible Free Time
"I would build 20 to 30 minutes into your after-school schedule so they get to unwind and not rush anywhere," Healy says. "They may sit outside under a tree, play a video (depending on your family rules), take a nap, or play with their LEGO toys, as examples. Of course, some children may need more time while others need less — but remembering that rest and restoration are essential to healthy development on a daily basis is an important part of intentional parenting."
One study in the American Journal of Play notes that allowing children to engage in free play helps improve their decision-making skills and encourages them to better regulate their emotions. I know my own kids have trouble focusing on homework if they don't have at least some free time after school. Even if it doesn't happen until after homework time, knowing they will have time to play or relax gives them something to look forward to after a long day at school.
6. Organized Sports
Samantha Magee, mom to two active kids, tells Romper that she finds time for her kids to enjoy organized after-school activities, as well as have some free time and reading before bed. For her, it's about balancing it all in their routine. "We do snack and homework as soon as we walk in the door, then they do whatever daily chores they need to do, and then they get free time before drill team practice. As soon as practice is over, it's dinner, shower, reading, and then bed," she says.
Participating in organized youth sports can provide "an emphasis on fun while establishing a balance between physical fitness, psychologic well-being, and lifelong lessons for a healthy and active lifestyle," a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine found. All of those things are, of course, super important for a child's overall development. When you allow your child to participate in an organized activity after school, you're also giving them another opportunity outside of school to socialize with their friends and let off some steam after a long day of learning.
But sometimes the idea of an organized sport can be overwhelming to both parents and kids. Rushing to make the commute from work to pick up your child to haul them to a ball game can really be stressful. But you can reap the same benefits of an organized sport by letting kids play with their neighborhood friends once they're home, having a quick game of catch in the backyard before dinner, or even turning "organized sport" into board game night after homework.
7. Practice Gratitude
"Parents who can invest (it's really an investment) five to 15 minutes per child every evening to establish a practice of gratitude or connection build a stronger parent-child relationship, which contributes to positive emotional health," Healy says. She suggests trying an exercise called "Three Good Things." "Every night you name three 'good things' from the day," Healy says. "Some days are easy like ice cream, pizza, and puppy dogs, while other days are harder like having the ears to hear and arms to hug, but this is a positive practice for parent and child."
Another activity Healy recommends is "the 'Rose and Thorn,' where before bedtime you ask your child what his 'rose' or favorite part of the day was, and the 'thorn' which may be the most challenging moment. Of course, we want to focus on the rose, but also coach our child on how thorns exist and how to handle them, too!"