Back To School

An after-school routine is a must for families.

How To Build An After-School Routine That Works For Your Family

Hint: An after-school snack is never a bad idea.

Originally Published: 

When my oldest son started kindergarten, I was clueless about how to structure his after-school routine. Did he need to eat a snack immediately? Did he need to focus on homework or play? We needed a routine, but I had no idea where to start. I ultimately put a call-out on social media begging for my experienced friends to weigh in.

Child psychologist Maureen Healy 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.

In time, my son and I found our own groove for his after-school routine, but we do tweak things here and there as needed. Now that he’s starting fourth grade and my youngest is in second grade, we’ll probably adjust things once again this year. Every kid is different and as they change and grow, their after-school routine may change as well.

Using these 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.


Food First


My kids are always ravenous after school. Sometimes lunch periods are in the morning and an early afternoon snack just doesn’t cut it. 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 beg 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 to reach for "less candy and more whole grains, veggies, fruit, and lean protein" to 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.


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.


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."


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 reap 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.


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.


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. 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.

If an organized activity is too much for your family, you can reap the similar benefits 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.


Take A Walk

One thing that my own kids have benefited from during our after-school routine is taking a walk. Especially when the weather is particularly nice, they are just itching to get outside after being at school all day. They get to stretch their legs, breathe some fresh air, and bounce around to get their extra energy out.

Another pro tip: Take a snack with you on your walk. Whether you pack a grab-and-go snack bag in the fridge with a squeezable yogurt and some granola or grab a piece of fruit off the counter, have a snack ready for your kids to take on your walk. You’ll all be much happier, I promise.


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!"


Maureen Healy, child psychologist, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child, and parenting coach at

Angie Weiss, nutrition services director, Wichita Falls Area Food Bank

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