Deborah Lowe Vandell, PhD, began to look into afterschool programs in 1985 for the same reason many women have: She couldn't find an afterschool program for her son.
"My son was in first grade, and I was struck with the realization that my child-care needs had not stopped," the University of WisconsinMadison professor of educational psychology says.
Not only were there few afterschool options in the Texas community where she lived at the time, there also weren't any studies on the subject, she found. Most of the research at the time was on so-called latchkey kids, youngsters who took care of themselves after school.
Fifteen years later, Vandell has become one of the premier researchers in the field. Over the years, Vandell has examined the range of afterschool options for youngsters and discovered that it's not one thing that works, but a mixture, depending on the circumstances and the child.
"It's a complicated question about what works best," she says. "Afterschool environments need to be evaluated in the context of the individual child's needs and within the family and neighborhood context."
Self-care, for example, isn't always bad, she comments. "There are circumstances in which self-care gives older children and adolescents some needed experiences related to independence," she explains.
Likewise, poorly run formal programs have the potential to do more harm than good, she believes. In addition, she's found, families' income levels and ability to spend time with their children impact whether formal afterschool activities are more or less needed.
"For families with fewer resources and less flexible schedules, children may have less access to a range of growth-enhancing activities," she says. "That's where programs can fill an important need."
A recent study by Vandell and colleague Jill Posner, PhD, has turned up findings that would please those in the youth-development field, which has tended to conduct a separate stream of research from that on younger children. The team found that the 194 Milwaukee-based third- and fifth-grade children in the study who had access to structured afterschool enrichment activities had better work habits and were better adjusted emotionally than their peers who didn't take part in the activities. Interestingly, a comparison group of youngsters who received structured tutoring showed no such benefit, the team found. Children who spent more time in unsupervised settings just hanging out were most at risk, the team found. Over the three-year period, this third group received lower academic grades, had poorer work habits and were less well-adjusted emotionally than the other youngsters. Results from that study are reported in the May 1999 issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 868879).
Vandell has an explanation for why these kinds of activities--such as art and music programs--have such salutary effects on kids.
"The enrichment activities seem to foster good work habits in the youngsters, such as persistence and sticking to a task, that could eventually lead to academic success," Vandell says. The findings suggest a good reason to restore these kinds of programs in the schools, she says.
The fact that her findings are so similar to what youth-development researchers and policy analysts are finding and what they hope to find leads her to believe that better integration is needed between the two areas, Vandell says. Both fields, for instance, believe in the importance of creating developmentally appropriate programs for kids. It's just that each targets different stages of development and, in some cases, different backgrounds.
"The fields have really developed fairly separately," she says. "Much of the youth-development work has targeted more low-income youth. But some of these findings on out-of-school activities and extracurricular activities--these are beneficial for all children."
Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.