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What Do Young Children Need After School?

September 20, 2021 | Emily Ford Sytsma

We are in the first six weeks of school.  These early days are the time to set the foundation at school for a successful experience for all. Teachers are carefully teaching schedules and routines.  Children are learning where to find what they need and how to take care of their work and the spaces they share.  This is a time for getting to know each other and for building a community.  

It is joyful work.  And it is exhausting. Children often arrive home spent from the day.

Their fatigue is not just physical.  It is cognitive and emotional as well. Information is coming to them throughout the day.  They receive, sort, store and retrieve it as they learn and practice new skills.  They muster bravery to take a risk and regulate their emotions when they encounter disappointment.

By the end of the school day (or even half-day), the children have likely used up all of their stores of strength and flexibility.  Some children seem wilted and struggle to walk home or make a decision.  Others are short-tempered and are quick to tears or anger over any small conflict with siblings or with you.  Some are so overstimulated that they melt down completely at home.  

How can you help your child cope after school ends? 

Get More ZZZZ’s: Children may need a little more sleep now than they did a few weeks ago.   Remember that young children need 10-13 hours of sleep each day.  Think about moving bedtime routines a little earlier in this season. Protect those hours of sleep! 

Connection: Children may need to reconnect with you when they return from home.  If your child is seeking your attention at the end of the day, plan proactively to spend 20 or 30 minutes playing a game or reading a book together.  Time with a sibling may meet this need as well.  Or find time within the week for a Zoom or park play date with a friend favorite friend. 

Sensory Input Reset: Sensory input can be a little like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  Each of us has a “just right” place that is probably too much for some and too little for others.  

  • Too Little: As COVID protocols continue, teachers have noted that the classrooms can sometimes be a little more quiet.  With masks on and group size limited, there is a peacefulness that many enjoy.  But if your child seeks sensory stimulation, the quiet and small groups and decreased physical input may leave them needing some touch or other sensory input.  It may be a good idea after school to plan for some snuggling time or some massage. Or playful wrestling or running hard in the park.  A dance party with some fast music may help your child unwind as well.  
  • Too Much:  On the other hand, some children may be overloaded by the socialization of school and the pace of activities here.  These students may need time alone at the end of their work.  It might be important to carve this out, even if siblings are excited about their return.  Ten minutes to an hour may of quiet playing alone may help them reset and give the brain a break in order to be ready to cope with the next transitions. 

Stories: Sometimes the best way to recoup after heavy brain work is to get lost in a story.  If stories are life-giving to your child, think about how to make it a special part of the time after school.  It may just mean planning for a time with books (stories read aloud or alone time to look at books) after your child’s after-school snack. If you do not have time, look for videos of stories read aloud.  Or perhaps you would like to start a new chapter book series and read one chapter after school each day.  Maybe it is finding a child-friendly podcast to enjoy together or adding some audiobooks to your child’s story collection and letting them listen while they play.  

Move!  Plan for some family exercise time in a way that works for your family.  Maybe you do a yoga video together after school.  Or toss a ball in the yard.  Or commit to walking to and from school or to going for a walk after learning activities end.  

This is a great time to remind families that children need to walk. Children who are ready for school are ready to cut way back on stroller use.  Try scooters and bicycles as a next step if the walk to school feels too far for your child.  

Relax: What helps your family relax? 

  • Maybe it is music or soothing background sounds to surround you. How about using a warm or cool rice pillow on the eyes, forehead, or shoulders while you listen?  
  • Or maybe something visually interesting will help.  Try looking at a live animal webcam or check out CBS Sunday Morning’s two-minute nature videos.  
  • Busy hands help many people relax; maybe after school time could include working on puzzles, or drawing, or building with Lego or play dough.  
  • What about a bath?  Moving bath time into the after-school routine may help your child relax and save you from some harder transitions later in the day when your child is overtired. 
  • Finally, try a guided meditation like the ones you can find on the Calm YouTube channel or the kids options on the My Life app. Or use a daily family devotion guide.  Practicing with guided meditation and prayer can help children gain independence in calming down in hard moments.

One thing we know about humans, even little ones, is that we are built for resilience and adaptability.   In a few weeks many new things will feel more normal and we will all have built stamina for this new way of spending our days.  Remind the children (and yourselves) that they have done hard things before.  And intentionally seek ways during the transition for everyone to feel restored. 

Emily Ford Sytsma

Early Childhood Director

Ms. Sytsma began her career as an educator working in inclusive classrooms in the state of Hawaii but found her roots began to grow here at Mustard Seed School when she came to teach in 1996. She joined the preschool team in 2007, after teaching for many years in the Middle School. She finds delight in the preschool’s approach to teaching and learning, inspired by the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. As Early Childhood Director, she seeks to support teachers in their work helping children learn about thinking and creative expression.

Ms. Sytsma’s the mother of a MSS alum and a current student. When not at school, Ms. Sytsma enjoys traveling with her husband and two children. She tends a very simple rooftop garden in Jersey City Heights and on long Saturday mornings, she may be seen taking long walks along the Hudson River and listening to audiobooks or podcasts while organizing her thoughts and getting her heart rate up.

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