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

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

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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? Should I limit screen time after school? 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.

Any after-school routine should really be based around the needs of the individual child, says child psychologist Maureen Healy, and all kids need time to decompress after school. “The goal is to build that 'downtime' into the day,” Healy says, noting that kids need to “rest, relax, and recharge after a full day of school.”

Every kid is different and as they change and grow, their after-school routine may change as well. For example, elementary kids will still want time to play, while middle school and high school students may need to factor in school sports practices or part-time jobs later on.

After-school routine templates

These basic after-school routine templates below can help you put together the routine that works best for you and your family. They might look different day-to-day, so don’t be stressed if your routine is ever thrown off — because it will likely happen — but knowing generally what to expect is good for both parents and kids.

Preschool & kindergarten after-school routines:

  1. Snack
  2. Nap or rest
  3. Free play (indoors or out)
  4. Family walk

Elementary school after-school routines:

  1. Snack
  2. Homework
  3. Free play (indoors or out)
  4. Chores
  5. Extracurricular activities

Middle school after-school routines:

  1. Snack
  2. Homework
  3. Rest/quiet time (with or without screens)
  4. Chores
  5. Extracurricular activities

High school after-school routines:

  1. Snack
  2. Clubs, activities, part-time job
  3. Homework
  4. Chores
  5. Rest/quiet time

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. Let the tips below guide you as you flesh out the details of your afternoon.


Prioritize food


My kids are always ravenous after school. Sometimes lunch periods are in the late morning and by pick-up time, they’ve worked up a serious appetite again. An immediate snack after school to keep energy levels 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.


Get homework out of the way

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If your child dreads homework, you may choose to get it out of the way sooner than later. After they’ve fueled up with a snack and had a few minutes of rest, break out the books. With the whole evening stretching in front of them, they’ll be able to take their time and not feel hurried, which can take the edge off some of their homework stress.


Give them after-school chores

You don’t have to pile a lot of housework on their shoulders, but giving your child some simple tasks to do around the house can help build their sense of self-esteem. In fact, a Michigan State University study 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.


Provide 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."

Screens may play a role in your child’s after-school routine when it comes to free time. Expert advice varies depending on your child’s age and what type of screen time they will engage in, so it is up to you to decide what is best for your family.

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.


Engage in organized activities

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 similar benefits by letting kids play with their neighborhood friends once they're home, or having a quick game of catch in the backyard before dinner.


Take a walk

One thing that my own kids have really enjoyed having as part of our after-school routine is regular walks. 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.


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."

Whatever after-school routine you create with your children, the key is figuring out what’s comfortable for you and your kids. Every family’s routine will look a little different, and that’s totally OK.

Studies cited:

Merkel DL. Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. May 31, 2013.

Sources interviewed:

Maureen Healy, child psychologist, author of The Emotionally Healthy Child

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

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