Balancing free play with structured activities in breakfast & afterschool care

Children’s days at school are often highly structured, and there is a natural desire from both children and staff to let them relax and unwind in their clubs. However, if children are left to their own devices for the entire session, this can lead to behavioural issues both in club, and in school.

So, how do you achieve a good balance?

The value of time to play

If we (for a moment) put to one side the accepted benefits of play for children, there is simply an inherent logic in not providing fully structured time in before and afterschool clubs. The last thing we want in providing wrapround care is to negatively impact on the children’s performance during the school day, due to their time in club tiring them out mentally. Providing purely structured activities feels like it could be detrimental in the long term – after all, we all need a rest and the option to choose how we spend our leisure time. Children are no different.

However, many commercial providers have gone to the other extreme and chosen to provide no structured activities for the children, advocating completely child-led free play – with predictably mixed results. It can be such a significant departure from what children are used to in school, that kids often become unsettled as a result – a recipe for poor behaviour. Add to this that (as a result of this hands-off approach), providers frequently struggle to maintain discipline – you can see how problems begin to develop.

A happy medium – look to Early Years

Years of teaching and running wraparound childcare has led me to the conclusion that if you want to know how to structure your wraparound club, then look no further than a high-quality reception class at primary school. Children excel in this environment with a blend of self-initiated “play” and planned activities from the teacher/support staff. Indeed, even those moments when children choose their activity will be thought through by the staff, to ensure a breadth of opportunity for learning. Staff will be on hand to question, support and model to children, discretely covering everything from maths and literacy to holding pens and cutting skills.

A great wraparound club is run by experienced staff who give the children a blend of free play and structured activities, with engaged staff who seek to help children develop, be that through play or well-planned sessions.

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About the Author

Dan McCaffrey is the Managing Director of Childcare Bookings for Schools, the only outsourced payment, bookings and administration service for school-run childcare in the UK. A former primary teacher, he is also the owner of Pioneer Childcare, the 5th largest wraparound provider in the country, where he learned (the hard way!) everything he shares in these blogs. Dan lives in Sussex with his family.

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