We all know physical activity is important for so many reasons, but our children don’t get enough of it these days. Here are some ways to help you increase physical activity (PA) in your after school program.
1. Schedule Time for Daily Physical Activity
If you haven’t already set aside a specific time each day for activity, do so. Having it on the schedule ensures it will happen every day, and leads to kids looking forward to it. It is recommended children get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) each day. However, scheduling a single one-hour block for activity may not be the best way to go. One study showed that youth spend a larger proportion of time being active if the time for activity is not too long.1 When 15-20 minutes are given, children tend to use the time more efficiently and are active for a higher percentage of the time. It is suggested that children need opportunities for activity directly after school, then schedule more intermittently during the rest of the day, rather than one single chunk of time. An example might be 20 minutes just after roll call, then snack, homework, another 20 minutes of PA, followed by other program activities, then finish with 20 minutes of PA.
2. Choose Activities High in Moderate-to-Vigorous Physical Activity (MVPA)
It’s important to choose highly active games and activities to get kids moving. A game of softball for example, while fun for some, doesn’t include much MVPA. However, mini-games of soccer are high MVPA and involve many opportunities to practice skills. Some examples of inappropriate and low MVPA activities include:
- Traditional Relay Races where 2 children complete an activity with others standing and watching.
- Elimination Games where children who are tagged or do something incorrectly sit out for the rest of the game.
- Duck-Duck-Goose, Red Rover, Steal the Bacon, or similar games where only one or two children move at a time.
You can create and adapt activities yourself, but you might be better off using a formal curriculum that is evidence-based and proven to be developmentally appropriate, inclusive, safe, and focused on MVPA. If you don’t have access to a formal curriculum, here are a few questions to ask about an activity before teaching it:
- Will it engage children in MVPA at least 50% of the time? (At a brisk walk or greater intensity).
- Does it make children’s hearts beat faster, breathe faster, and use large muscle groups at least 50% of the time?
- Are all children equally involved and active?
- Does everyone have frequent opportunities to participate and practice skills?
3. Offer Choices
Most after school programs typically offer choices of activity. While some offer the choice of free play versus structured activity, others offer choices from several structured activities. One method may give children options of small group games, partner activities, or individual activities. For example, they may choose between basketball mini-games, 2-Square, or Line Dancing. Another way to incorporate choice is to offer levels of intensity in fitness activities and/or levels of competition in sport activities. Here children might decide between an “Easy Does It” level, a “Recreation League” level, and the “All Pro” level of play. No single way of offering choice is the best, just be sure to offer it in some way!
4. Make Activities Developmentally Appropriate
Using a formal evidence-based curriculum will help with this. However, if you don’t have that, be sure the activities are divided by age and skill level so your older children are not playing the same thing as the youngest and vice versa. You don’t want kindergarteners playing football with 12-year-olds. Nor should you have your 12-year-olds doing the Bunny Hop with the 6-year-olds. There are some activities that are great for all ages, and it is easier and often helpful to have highly-skilled, more mature kids help the younger, lesser-skilled ones. However, it isn’t fair to your older kids to ask them to do that all the time. Allow your higher-skilled kids to play with and against each other. They will have more fun, be more active, and be more challenged. And, conversely, allowing your younger movers time to practice and play with their same-age peers helps them build skills and confidence.
5. Keep it Fresh
While you may have several activities that are fan-favorites and everyone seems to love them, don’t overuse any activity. Keep teaching new games for several reasons: they don’t get stale, staff and children don’t get lazy while playing them, and it is good for the minds of children to learn new games. If you have a formal curriculum, there will be enough activities to teach something new almost every day. It is fine to replay a few activities here and there, just don’t overuse them. Another way to keep things fresh is to allow your children to put their own spin on an activity. Once you’ve taught it, allow them to come up with different ways to play. To be sure it is safe, high in MVPA, and developmentally appropriate, have children be mindful of these characteristics when creating and tweaking their games.
6. Keep the Staff Moving
It has been shown that when supervisors of physical activity continue to move from group to group and around the activity area, children are more active.2 Active supervision helps by having leaders interacting with participants, modeling physical activity, and increasing the proximity effect, where leaders catch behavior issues by being near them. Train staff to move throughout the area and give positive, specific feedback wherever they see it.
7. Use Equipment Wisely
There are numerous activities that can be played with little to no equipment. If you have equipment quantity issues, then focus on these types of games and activities. If you don’t have much equipment, do not lead activities where more equipment is needed. For example, don’t have your children play a huge group game of soccer with just one ball. Allow a small group to play soccer with the ball, and have different options for the rest of the children that use available equipment. Try to get enough equipment so children can work alone, in pairs, or in very small groups to practice skills, such as passing and receiving before playing a game. Teach children to treat equipment with respect to increase its longevity.
8. Create a Positive Learning Environment
One of the biggest killers of MVPA in an after school program is off-task behavior. Create a positive learning environment from the outset by setting up your expectations and consequences and ensuring all staff and children understand them completely. Cover them early and often and keep them posted visually at all times. Teaching and reinforcing social skills such as Respect, Responsibility, Cooperation, Acceptance, Courtesy, Initiative, Leadership, etc. will help over the course of the year. Use a variety of Cooperative Activities and games to teach and strengthen these behaviors. Constantly modeling positive behavior and praising those children who demonstrate them is a great way to stay focused on the positive.
9. Use Effective Instructional and Management Strategies
There are many times during your activity sessions where you may be giving instructions or doing management tasks (getting into groups, distributing and collecting equipment, etc.). Use the following strategies to keep these times to a minimum or increase activity during such times.
- Make instructions clear and concise.
- Show a demonstration of the activity.
- Don’t ask: “Are there any questions?”
- Use Equipment Managers to distribute and collect equipment.
- Have enough equipment for the activity.
- Teach and practice start and stop signals.
- Teach all children what to do with equipment when you are talking.
- Say the “when” before the “what.” E.g. “When you hear the music, dribble around the court.”
- Use “The object is… Do that by…” to give instructions for a game. Give the big picture followed by details.
- Have children move from the get go when they enter the activity area. E.g. move around the boundaries until the signal.
10. Be Consistent
All sorts of things come up each week that will try to disrupt the schedule for physical activity (e.g. the school needs the gym for intramurals, inclement weather, it’s holiday time and they have art projects to finish, etc.). While it may be tempting to skip PA for a day, don’t do it. Show your children it is a top priority and don’t let anything get in the way of your PA time. This may be the most important part of the after school program for a lot of your kids. Put it on the schedule and keep with it. Have plans for what to do in case of inclement weather or when your usual facility is not available. Limited space activities, while not ideal, will still allow your children to be active and show them the importance of being consistent with physical activity.
Hope you can use these ideas to get your program active and keep it active. Your participants and their parents will benefit in more ways than you can count!
1 Beighle, A., Morgan, C. F., Le Masurier, G., & Pangrazi, R. P. (2006). Children’s physical activity during recess and outside of school. Journal of School Health, 76(10), 516–520.
2 (Morgan, Beighle, & Pangrazi, 2007).