Supporting Our Children to Find Their Passion, Purpose, and Voice

Learning Heroes
8 min readMay 7, 2021

By Michelle Chaudoir, Director of Operations at Learning Heroes

After being back in school for only a week, my 6th grade son came home and confidently announced “I signed up for track.” He beamed. And I felt a gush of relief that I had made the right decision to send him back to school in-person and opened up the doors to this new level of confidence and decision-making.

While he went through the motions of virtual classes for the past year, his apathy towards school and all the things he used to love were silent cues my gut told me I needed to do something different. So, the first thing I did after getting my 2nd dose of the vaccine (ie. “Ticket to Freedom”) was to call his school about coming back. The return of his old spark made me grateful I did.

New research released by Learning Heroes, “Out-of-School-Time Programs This Summer | Paving the Way for Children to Find Passion, Purpose & Voice” delves into the power that afterschool, extracurricular and youth development programs have in the lives of children. The research included deep qualitative and quantitative listening among more than 2,000 K-8 parents and 1,000 K-8 teachers and out-of-school time (OST) providers nationally, between November 2020 and March of this year. Among the families who were surveyed about their experiences and perceptions of OST, 65% enroll their children in one or more programs. Nearly half of those participate in a program focused on sports, the arts, or other interest-based activities. There are lots of things we as parents could be doing with our family’s time and energy, but a clear majority see the value these opportunities offer our children, now and into the future.

The good news is teachers and out-of-school program providers share parents’ enthusiasm for these programs and the positive effects they have on students — both in and out of school. In focus groups, teachers repeatedly told Learning Heroes that children who participate in activities outside of school are more successful in school. And this makes sense, because even if my son doesn’t win a single race, just signing up, showing up, and getting sweaty at every practice exercises safe and healthy risk taking. In the classroom, this translates to a willingness to take academic risks, like struggling through a tough algebra problem or making a mistake on an assignment and trying again. Along the way, he’ll learn teamwork, leadership and perseverance — all skills that parents, teachers, and providers agree is reinforced by participation in these programs.

What drives parents to support their child’s participation in out-of school-time programs? Learning Heroes found that parents see extracurriculars as their child’s own unique space where they can explore and cultivate their passions, purpose, and voice, as the title of the research suggests. These programs are distinct from school — where kids are one among many and everyone generally swims in their grade level ‘lane.’

Equally important is that out-of-school activities expose kids to a range of important experiences they just can’t get at home. While there are lots of things I can offer my son — like our cherished time reading aloud before going to bed at night — I don’t need to become his track coach, too. Giving him that space to grow and find out what he loves — and even what he doesn’t — sends a powerful message: This is your time and space to grow and become your unique self. The skills and lessons learned, the memories, the wins — and even the losses — are yours to keep as part of your life journey.

Unfortunately, Learning Heroes found that access to these programs is not equitably distributed. Families whose children are enrolled in OST activities report a higher socio-economic status and education level, regardless of race or ethnicity, than those who don’t send their children to any programs. So while I’m grateful my son’s middle school, a Title I school, offered a fantastic lineup of virtual clubs this year with the support of a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, and responded to parent interest in starting a virtual chess club, I don’t feel certain that enriching opportunities like these are reaching all the kids in our community who would benefit from them.

With summer around the corner — and the pandemic not quite over — questions about access to programs are critical and timely. I echo the uncertainty Learning Heroes heard from parents about what to do this summer. Questions abound — are summer programs in person? Is everyone wearing masks? Should we stick to virtual activities? How is a year and a half of constantly being on screen affecting my child? Will he be ready for school next year?

In Learning Heroes’ findings, I didn’t find a silver bullet about how to focus my child’s time this summer, but I did hear the resounding question — what’s the right approach for MY child this summer? And the answer isn’t one size fits all — it’s “one size fits one” and will be as unique as each child.

Indeed, after a year of social distancing and separation from friends and loved ones, Learning Heroes found the top priority for parents this summer is addressing children’s social and emotional health. Whether through a formal program they join with old friends — or getting kids together for a pickup game of soccer — everyone agrees that this summer is about finding ways to reconnect socially and with the things that matter. It’s a time for kids to be kids.

Figuring out what’s right for your child this summer will likely include listening to several trusted voices — namely, your child and your child’s teacher. Taking a moment with your child to think about their interests and who they are most excited to spend time with this summer is a great start. I’d like to be able to tell him “the sky’s the limit” on what he can choose, but with the reality of financial and logistical hurdles (and the pandemic!) we might need to get creative. So, while my son confided that he really wants to visit an amusement park, that’s an activity I can put on our “maybe” list — we’ll monitor crowd levels and safety precautions — and look for coupons, too. Alternatively, we can build on his newfound interest in thrill seeking by tapping into EdNavigator’s Camp Kinda, including this session on the science of roller coasters. But I know for sure we’ll reconnect with a friend who happens to share my son’s favorite board games. For MY child — a friend, a glass of lemonade, afternoons on the porch playing Risk (and no screens) — sound like a perfect plan for summer 2021.

This summer, lean into what makes your child feel reconnected, reengaged and recharged.

As kids get a chance to be kids this summer, learning doesn’t have to stop. As we round the corner on this school year, now is a great time to connect with your child’s teacher about what math skills to focus on this summer and how you can support those skills at home. Learning Heroes’ “Summer Parent-Teacher Planning Tool” is a great way to kickoff the conversation. Teachers are connected to great resources, too, so be sure to ask about summer programs in your school or community. And look for Learning Heroes’ Summer REcharge resources for families starting on May 11.

At our house, we’ll keep a summer learning routine with 30–60 minutes of Prodigy math before my son starts his day; and cuddle up with a good book after lunch — when it’s too hot to play outside anyway. Last fall, I got validation that this summer learning plan paid off. When my son took his math placement test for 6th grade, the joyful surprise in his teacher’s voice told me how well he did. (And I said a silent thank you to Prodigy for making math so much fun he didn’t even realize he was “studying”!)

A little bit of math and reading every day goes a long way toward honing skills for the next grade. Partner up with your child’s teacher on a plan — and be sure to share it with any tutors, summer learning providers, and new teachers in the fall.

As we dream and make plans for what’s ahead this summer and beyond for our children, it’s a moment for us as parents to think about the program, camp or after-school activity that helped shape who we are today. I might even dust off a few memories from my track running days to share with my son as we lean into what matters and help him find his passion, purpose and voice.

To learn more about Learning Heroes latest research, check out the summary report for “Out-of-School-Time Programs This Summer | Paving the Way for Children to Find Passion, Purpose & Voice” or watch the webinar recording.

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Learning Heroes

Learning Heroes serves to inform and equip parents to be advocates for their children and best support their academic, social, and emotional development.