If you are a parent of a school-aged kid, you would probably agree: gone are the days when you had much say in what activities your child participates in after school. Kids, especially tweens, are increasingly the decision-makers with respect to their own afterschool activities, relegating the role of parents to two basic functions: vetting the safety and convenience of the afterschool program and paying for it. Yet most afterschool program providers still market almost exclusively to parents. Their messaging often misses the mark by underestimating the degree to which the parent-child dynamic has changed over the past few years.
Our research indicates that children are increasingly in the driver’s seat when it comes to decisions about their afterschool programs. As a 5th-grader recently told us, “I decide what I want to do, Mom decides if it’s OK or not.” Parents now act more as gatekeepers than initiators of program involvement, vetting the safety, quality, and suitability of their children’s desired programs. Rather than demanding or recommending involvement in a preferred activity, parents are much more likely to react to their children’s initiatives, acting as screening agents and sounding boards to help their child ensure that the suggested activity is realistic, feasible, and meaningful.
Here are just a few trends that transform family decision-making with respect to afterschool programs:
- Kids are empowered consumers, who exercise initiative and a great deal of influence over their own activities – particularly regarding decisions about how they spend their time outside the home and the classroom. The parent-child interactions are based on “bargaining” and “negotiating,” as parents and children freely discuss their respective interests and desires in weighing the costs and benefits of program participation. Kids are savvy negotiators and often know precisely what information to bring to the table to win their case.
- Kids are open to trying new things and seek out novelty – novel experiences and opportunities to make new friends. On the flip side, they are often fickle consumers, with short attention spans and hair-trigger reactions to unpleasant experiences. They exhibit a notable lack of patience with situations or programs not to their liking. Products, activities or experiences that fail to immediately gratify are often abandoned in favor of a new interest or pursuit. Since there is always something else bidding for their attention, there is little lost by dropping a program that they have grown bored with or found too challenging. One of the first questions parents have learned to ask their child during the “negotiating” phase is, “Will you stick with it?”
- Kids today expect a wide range of choices and individual customization. They commonly seek experiences and products that enable them to express their individuality and their own personal styles. They crave structure and a clear set of rules but they expect to have a say in what those rules are.
These dynamics call for a different approach to marketing of afterschool programs. Program providers should assume that children play a critical, if not decisive role, in selecting programs for participation, and their messages should be tailored appropriately. The number one priority is to grab children’s attention and trigger their motivation to join. Children should then be provided with ammunition for convincing their parents of the benefit, safety and logistical feasibility (cost and convenience) of their program.
How do you grab children’s attention? There are many conditions that have to be met: the content should be perceived as relevant and appealing; the social “permission” should be in place (if ballet is taboo among my peers I am unlikely to join); the program should be affordable and convenient. Beyond those fundamentals, there are many tactics for positioning your afterschool program as a top choice for kids and for ensuring their commitment to the program:
- Meet them where they are – if possible, arrange for presentations in schools or other trusted institutions; make materials available for distribution at schools.
- Online marketing is important but do not underestimate the power of traditional media – most children and parents still rely on flyers and posters, especially those available through schools, for information about afterschool programs.
- Give children a taste of what the experience will be like for them – visiting the space, meeting the instructors, seeing the equipment and resources, seeing a demo or taking a trial class to reduce commitment anxiety.
- Participants’ age range is a sensitive issue, especially for tweens. Limit the age ranges for different programs, so as not to force older tweens to take introductory level classes with younger kids.
- In designing your programs, be aware of children’s underlying needs and expectations, which include: leadership roles and opportunities for input into the content and style of the program, collaborative adult-student relationships, autonomy, access to novel stimuli, resources and expert guidance, safe means of expressing anger and emotion, lots of fun, and exposure to the larger world beyond their immediate communities.
- Consider integrating interdisciplinary approaches to programming, pairing unexpected disciplines, genres and styles.
- Solicit children’s input early and throughout the program to ensure that their experiences match their expectations.
- Set program milestones and rewards to boost children’s commitment to the program.
- Provide snacks! Yes, snacks are a major draw for children, especially in low-income and urban environments.
- Assess the appeal of the program at key intervals in order to discover possible sources of dissatisfaction and to inform refinement of the program as needed.
- Equip children with selling points for their parents; and in parents’ messaging link the intended program outcomes to abiding needs of children and higher-order goals of parents.
Ultimately, experience of the program is the best opportunity for completely shifting children’s expectations and growing their appetite for more. “Graduates” will ideally have a completely new idea of the afterschool program and will share their enthusiasm with their peers. And the more children believe that this is what their peers are doing, the more they will want to participate themselves.
Photography by Lauren Weiss