Choose a Healthy After-School Child Care Program

Seek after-school care that follows healthy nutrition and activity standards.

Group of young kids stretching in after-school child care
Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

More than eight million kids in the U.S. are enrolled in before- or after-school child care programs (or other out-of-school options such as summer camps) for at least three hours a day. These programs quite often provide snacks, as well as time for active play—so it's important that they teach healthy habits as well.

The Healthy Out-of-School Time Coalition (HOST) is a group made up of advocates and experts in both out-of-school care and health promotion.

The group offers guidelines for improving kids' health through nutrition and physical activity in care programs. "Energy balance and appropriate physical activity are critical to good health and preventing childhood obesity," says Ellen S. Gannett, director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. "Out-of-school programs provide opportunities for children to not only consume nutritious snacks but also to learn real-life strategies for evaluating food options and making healthy choices."

Snack Recommendations for After-School Child Care

When investigating after-school child care options, ask about snack menus and policies. The HOST guidelines suggest that each day, programs serve:

  • At least one fruit or vegetable (fresh, frozen, canned, or dried, with no added sugar)
  • Nutrient dense foods, such as baked goods made with whole grains and foods rich in protein (such as lean meats, nuts, or beans)
  • Water, low-fat milk, or 100% juice to drink (avoiding beverages with added sweeteners; no more than 8 oz. of juice per day)
  • No foods with trans fats
  • No foods with artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners
  • No candy or foods that are "primarily sugar based"
  • Fried foods only if they are prepared with a healthy oil (but no fried, salty snacks such as potato chips)
  • Options that accommodate dietary restrictions and preferences due to allergy, food intolerance, religion, and culture
  • Healthy foods at parent events, too

Out-of-school programs can help children learn about nutrition and healthy choices by:

  • Having kids help with menu planning, food preparation, serving, and clean-up
  • Not using food as a reward for good behavior (and not withholding food as a punishment)
  • Celebrating birthdays and other special days with healthy treats or non-food items (and making sure parents know and follow this rule)
  • Making sure items sold as fundraisers are non-food items or healthy foods
  • Providing positive messages about healthy eating through posters, pictures, books, and class discussions
  • Not exposing kids to unhealthy foods (in vending machines, for example) or to marketing for those kinds of foods

The guidelines also recommend that after-school child care providers use portion size and variety to sate kids' hunger without encouraging them to overeat; and that staff regularly receive training on healthy eating and health promotion.

Physical Activity Recommendations for After-School Child Care

School-age children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Out-of-school programs can help kids meet that goal by providing:

  • At least 30 minutes, or 20 percent, of program time to physical activity (60 minutes for a full day program)
  • Physical activities in which kids are moderately to vigorously active for at least 50% of the activity time
  • Outdoor play whenever possible
  • Aerobic and age-appropriate muscle- and bone strengthening and cardiorespiratory fitness activities
  • A variety of physical activity options that are fun and offer life-long learning opportunities
  • Unstructured free play, or structured activities that involve all students in the program
  • Non-competitive activities
  • Competitive physical activities (in an intramural program)
  • Activities that are adaptable, accessible and inclusive of children with all abilities
  • Activities that are safe, developmentally appropriate, and success-oriented
  • Short physical activity breaks between and/or within learning activities
  • No access to television or movies
  • Limited digital device time (one hour a day for homework, or for devices that engage children in moderate to intense physical activity)
  • Staff training on strategies for including physical activity in programming
  • Equipment for games and activities (that is safe and developmentally appropriate)
  • Adequate indoor and outdoor facilities for physical activity

Just as with the nutrition recommendations, HOST has suggestions for helping kids learn about the importance of physical activity. Kids can help choose, organize, and lead active games, for example.

Finding a Suitable After-School Child Care Program

While HOST's guidelines for out-of-school and after-school child care programs are not mandatory, they have been adopted by the National Afterschool Association, which counts 7,000 care providers among its members. The YMCA of the USA, one of the largest providers of after-school child care, participated in the research project that helped create the standards.

Convenience will play a huge role in your choice of an after-school care program. If a program isn't located at your child's school, or he can't easily travel there on foot or by bus, then it won't be a good option regardless of its perfect menu and super sports program. But you can still use these guidelines to evaluate the program located in your school and suggest changes. You can see the entire standards and guidelines document at the National Institute for Out-of-School Time website; consider printing a copy or emailing one to the program director at your child's school.

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