5 (Free) Ways to Make After School Meaningful

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Riding bikes, learning to navigate the neighborhood and play with other kids builds confidence and executive functioning skills.

After school hours are busy—rushing from sports to homework, dinner and bedtime. Your child may or may not have work to do, depending on where your school stands on homework, so you have an hour or two each day of family time. You don’t want to spend a lot of money, and you want what happens during that time to spill over into school.

Here are five enriching, fun, and cheap ways to spend those after school hours.

Active Reading

Active Reading is reading with your child instead of to them using the ABCs of Active Reading: Ask questions, Build vocabulary, and make Connections. School-aged children who can read on their own should be read to. Read aloud engages kids in books they can’t read on their own, builds their vocabulary and broadens their reading experiences.

To do Active Reading:

  • Ask open-ended questions: What’s happening? What did you learn? What do you think will happen next?
  • Build vocabulary: Talk about words that we see in books, but don’t usually use in conversation. Words like “giddy” or “ecstatic” for happy.
  • Make Connections: Link your child’s knowledge to the story with questions: What do you already know about this topic? What happened in the last chapter that could predict this event?

The School Payoff

Doing Active Reading with your child prepares them for better reading comprehension. They’ll use the vocabulary and thinking skills while reading with you in their reading at school.

Time Outside

This isn’t about structure, but running around playing tag, biking around the neighborhood or digging a hole in the garden. Rally the kids in the neighborhood for a game of kick-the-can, or set your kids free in the yard with some shovels and buckets of water.

The School Payoff

Executive function skills help us plan, prioritize, communicate, and complete tasks. Think: the skills kids use to play together, or create and implement a plan. When they have a project to complete at school, having executive functioning skills makes it that much easier.

Build Background Knowledge

Background knowledge is all the information your child knows from their experiences. Visit museums and art galleries, see plays together, and create hands-on experiences (this could be as easy as drawing the moon each night to track its phases, or recording weather each afternoon to notice patterns).

The School Payoff

Background knowledge helps your child understand what they read, particularly nonfiction. Think of it as the glue that helps your child connect new information with old, giving them a better understanding of new ideas they come across in school.

Puzzle Time

Puzzles — jigsaw, mazes, crosswords — are a great way to build problem-solving, hand-eye coordination, and fine-motor development skills. To get puzzles on the cheap, see if you can do a puzzle exchange with friends, or scout out old puzzles at thrift stores.

The School Payoff

A main benefit of doing puzzles is developing your child’s ability to make choices and apply a strategy to solve a problem and stick with it when they get stuck, even if its creating an image of a jungle one piece at a time. This will come in handy when they have to stick with a problem at school.


When your kids come at you with pleas to rescue you from boredom, resist! Being bored forces your child to use their imagination, create their own fun and discover new interests.

The School Payoff

It’s a fact: Sometimes school is boring. And, sometimes your child will have to create their own fun or discover a new interest when they’re assigned a project. The better they are at coming up with ways to engage their brain, the better they can make any situation feel relevant and engaging.


Samantha Cleaver, PhD, is a middle school teacher in Charlotte and the author of "Read with Me: Engaging Your Young Child in Active Reading." She has three kids who and can be found doing puzzles or taking her kids on bike rides after school.