Finding the best after-school care for your child is a challenge. Here's how to weigh the options.

After-School Activities, p.1

When 5-year-old Annie Lutz started kindergarten, her parents' number-one concern was making sure she adjusted to her new classmates and teacher. Their number-two concern? After-school care, of course. "Both my husband and I have full-time jobs," says Ericka Lutz, of Oakland, California, "so we needed to find a safe, fun place for those postschool hours."

The Lutzes are not alone: According to The Families and Work Institute, in New York City, 62 percent of mothers are in the workforce -- seven million full-time -- and more than half say that child care is a serious worry, one that doesn't stop when a child enters school, which typically ends at 3:00 p.m., or even earlier.

One of the biggest challenges is finding developmentally appropriate care. Just being in school all day is a new, stimulating, and often exhausting experience for a 5- or 6-year-old, so think carefully before you pack these extra hours with structured activities. "Kids this age need plenty of time for independent play," says Rebecca Eder, Ph.D., director of psychology at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "That's how they do much of their learning."

Letting them just play, however, is easier said than done. A 1997 University of Michigan survey of 3,000 children found that American children under 12 spent nearly four fewer hours per day in free play than kids did in 1981. So before you commit to any after-school program or caregiver, weigh your options carefully. Here, the lowdown on what's available.

After-School Activities, p.2

At-Home Caregivers

The benefits: For some, a nanny or baby-sitter is the next-best thing to Mom and Dad.This type of care also offers lots of flexibility. With an at-home caregiver, your child has opportunities for quiet play, for instructional classes, like soccer or ballet, and for regular playdates, experiences that school-age children need and enjoy. "Playdates help 5- and 6-year-olds hone social skills and connect with other kids," says Dr. Eder. This solution also provides flexibility for parents whose work schedules may be irregular or who need someone who can take a child to the doctor or run an occasional errand.

The drawbacks: If you are providing care for only one child, this method is expensive, particularly if you choose an agency-hired nanny, who may earn anywhere from $7 to $12 an hour. And if she works more than 20 hours a week, you are responsible for paying FICA (Social Security). To cut costs, you may consider hiring a responsible high school or college student, whose rates typically run from $4 to $12 an hour. Also, if most of your child's friends are in center-based care or after-school programs, she may feel left out, so you may want to mix at-home care with a formal program one or two days a week.

Center-Based Care

The benefits: The shortage of good day-care centers is a perennial problem, but if you look hard, you'll find quality programs that suit your child and your budget. "Good child-care programs provide school-age children with consistency, lots of play choices, rest, and opportunities to interact with new kids," says James Elicker, Ph.D., an associate professor of child development at Purdue University, in Indiana. Center-based care is also economical. Rates can run from $55 to $549 per month for a day-care center, or $147 to $374 for family-based care, depending on where you live. Day care also fosters the independence that your child is starting to acquire in school.

The drawbacks: Not all programs provide transportation from school, and family-based care may not have the staff (or budget) to provide a variety of activities for children of different ages. Larger day-care programs may offer lots of activities, but personal attention can be limited. Also, these programs often end between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. If you can't get there from work in time, you have yet another interim-care challenge.

After-School Programs

The benefits: These programs concentrate only on the after-school hours and range from school-sponsored on-site care to programs offered by local synagogues, churches, and community centers. Like center-based care, these programs can provide your 5- and 6-year-old with opportunities to make friends, play sports, and acquire skills.

The drawbacks: They vary widely in price, costing as much as $300 per month or as little as $110. And, like center-based care, many after-school programs end before you can get home, so you may have to cobble together interim care. Also, for some kids, nine hours in school is too much, so you might want to alternate with a sitter a few times a week.

A Mixed Bag of Care

The benefits: Though it may require a few scheduling somersaults, an assortment of choices can work well -- particularly if you can use some work flextime to be home occasionally. "Spending time alone together after school is a great way to connect with your child," says Dr. Eder.

Organized after-school activities, such as Brownies or 4-H, typically start in kindergarten or first grade and begin right after school. Some creative collaboration with other parents can get your child from point A to B with few worries -- and minimal cost.

The drawbacks: Get ready for some hard-core organizing. You'll also need multiple backups in the event of a canceled activity or scheduling conflict. Also, kids this age tire easily, so if your child needs daily rest, this approach may be too much for her.

To find out about options in your area, call the Child Care Action Campaign at 212-239-0138.


Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 1999 issue of Parents magazine.

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