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On-Site Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality

From Toddlers to Teens! Let Them Play!


If you are an 80’s baby, you probably played with a toy kitchen set. I did. When I was four years old, Santa brought me a kitchen set for Christmas. With a big grin on my face, I served my family plastic chicken drumsticks and fake pieces of yellow corn on the cob.  My mom would pretend to chew the food and comment “Umm Tiana this is sooo good.” Unaware of my actions, I was emulating my mom and pretending to be a big girl.  As I reminisce about this experience, I discover how critical playing and learning is for a young growing mind.

Eight years ago, I transitioned from working with elementary age children to managing an after-school program for middle and high school students.  At first, I struggled with engaging middle school age students however as time passed I began to make the connection, teenagers are like toddlers.

Aha! I got this.

This notion took the sting out of the challenges I was facing and empowered me.

Let’s point out some similarities between Teens and Toddlers:

  • They love to say “No” and press limits.
  • They are rebellious.
  • Toddlers are learning to use their words to communicate with others.
  • Teens are formulating concepts and ideas to position themselves with their family, friends and their community by and large.

I recognized the big picture. Create an environment that allows teens to learn and express their need for independence, with staff’s guidance. Once I understood their developmental needs, I tried my best not get caught up in their power trips and lack of motivation to participate in enrichment activities. If an interaction got under my skin, I always had to remind myself that “they are just big babies.”

Now, let’s go back to the concept of my kitchen set. The kitchen set was a simulated experience that allowed me to have autonomy, fun and use my creativity while allowing me to make connections to real life. Teens also flourish when they are engaging in activities that connect to real life. If they have a personal interest in the topic, they will invest in the lesson without exerting too much effort.

I have talked with many teachers and afterschool educators, and they ask me the million-dollar question. How do you engage teenagers? My answer is, meet them where they are: teens think they are grownups so why not create learning opportunities that allow them to learn as well as giving them the space to explore and express their independence.

Here are a few tips on how to engage middle and high school teen in out of school time activities:


1. Be Creative – Encourage creativity and add an element of fun.

  • Competitions motivate students
  • Voting allows to them to use their voice
  • Act out a skit, use technology, drawings, and give presentations

2. Be Active – Middle school age children are full of energy and hormones, help them to release their energy in a productive way

  • Sports, yoga, dance, physical games, cooking, martial arts

3. Promote Talking –  Begin and end activities with open-ended questions to encourage youth to reflect and draw conclusions.

  • Film festivals, debate teams, blogging, vlogging and book clubs, music and art

4. Collaborative Learning – Engagement amplifies when teens are working with others. Set Ground rules to ensure that students know how to communicate and behave in that setting.

Ask yourself a question, if you had to attend your after-school program, as a teenager would you want to go daily?  Are your staff fun to be around? Are your plans exciting and thought-provoking? If your answers are no to these questions, then think about your students, is it worth their time and effort to fully participate in your enrichment programs.

The bottom line is teens cultivate self-worth and leadership skills in interactive environments that nurture positive self- discovery. Students feel a sense of control over their behaviors and goals when educators relinquish some control and allow them to work collaboratively and independently on projects and topic of their interest and relevance. When the culture of your program begins to view programming through the eyes and mind of teens, engagement levels increase as a result.

For breakfast, I had a yogurt and an omelette. 

Author: @tiana-brown

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