Play matters: After-school and summer programs key for students - Albuquerque Journal

Play matters: After-school and summer programs key for students

After-school and summer learning programs are vital supports to communities across New Mexico, and we must ensure the recent influx of financial help for them continues. Trusted community-based organizations such as local Boys & Girls Clubs work with students, families and schools to deliver positive settings, relationships and experiences that are critical for young people’s healthy development. Recognizing the serious impacts the pandemic had on young people’s well-being, expanding access to after-school and summer learning is more important than ever.

COVID took a steep toll on children, from increased anxiety and social isolation, to coping with grief and loss. The pandemic hit communities that were vulnerable before the pandemic, including youth with disabilities, minorities and children from poor families.

Much of the concern around the pandemic has centered on learning loss. But robust academic research shows play is also an essential part of child development, aiding in empathy, healthy relationships, survival skills and self-regulation. These factors encompass a variety of skills, behaviors and attitudes that arm children with the social and emotional competencies to perform well in school and function in society. That’s where out-of-school-time programs come in.

President Biden and the Congress included new funding for summer enrichment and after-school programs in the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package last year. At Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s direction, New Mexico set aside $6 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds for mini-grants for partnerships between local school districts and community-based organizations to create, support and expand after-school programs in underserved communities. These funds have provided a unique opportunity for youth and out-of-school-time providers. As of April, 34 grants have been awarded, supporting more than 50 after-school and summer program sites in New Mexico.

Throughout the pandemic, research found that after-school and summer programs stepped up to meet the needs of young people, including help with their overall health and well-being. While no one is suggesting a few weeks of summer camp and after-school programming is a cure-all, the science shows the kind of experiences after-school and summer camp can provide – a safe, healthy space to explore, play and build confidence – can change children’s lives. During the pandemic, these programs adapted to circumstances and expanded services to meet the needs of children and families. Yet too many children are still left out.

Even before COVID hit, a survey of New Mexico parents found that for every child in an after-school program, three more would have participated if a program were available.

If we are to recover fully and ensure more positive, equitable outcomes for youth, we must continue to invest in after-school and summer learning. The conditional nature of the federal funding will require state policy makers to identify additional revenues to compensate for the end of recovery programs. To achieve long-term sustainability, New Mexico must lock in funding for expanded learning initiatives through community-based providers, distributed fairly.

Children are always learning, whether in the classroom or out. Programs outside the traditional school day help channel learning in constructive ways, providing opportunity for students to connect with their passions and develop new skills. The value of after-school and summer education is that it offers an alternative to rigid assessments in favor of student engagement, cultivating love of learning and personal growth. Student achievement and proficiency follow strong student engagement.

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