Q: Our district needs good after-school activities. A group of us want to start two clubs that use volunteer knowledge, offer cross-age learning, don't require expensive equipment and get kids away from their digital devices. Any suggestions?
A: How about chess and gardening? After-school coordinators I spoke with say communities often have passionate chess players and gardeners who like to pass on their knowledge. Both hobbies have good track records in schools and national organizations that can provide resources and models.
Chess is gaining in popularity in schools. The motto of the United States Chess Federation (USCF), "Chess makes kids smart," is part of the appeal.
New Jersey has added chess to its elementary school curriculum. Oregon's Chess for Success (www.chessforsuccess.org) points to research that shows chess can boost math and reading skills and improve critical thinking. Chess for Success Executive Director Julie Young says kids learn life skills, too, such as impulse control, delayed gratification, strategy and long-term planning.
Kids as young as first grade can learn to enjoy the game. Check out the Scholastic link on the USCF's website: www.uschess.org.
School gardens are popping up everywhere because they're wonderful places for hands-on lessons in a variety of subject areas and offer great volunteer projects to bring together community members of all ages. Two teachers at Park Avenue Elementary, in the North Bellmore (N.Y.) School District, launched a school garden that "grew out of our concern that children's outdoor interaction is diminishing," says Robin Obey, kindergarten teacher.
"Now," she says, "parents see their kids not only growing but tasting fresh foods such as radishes, lettuces, spinach and herbs!"
Obey and art teacher Jill Skelly secured $2,000 from the Bellmore Lion's Club for raised beds. The garden is used throughout the day. Obey says teachers have taught writing workshops, poetry, art, science and math in the garden.
"Kids are very excited to be there!" she says.
This spring's crops were so plentiful that kids participated in a "Grow to Give" program, with harvests donated to local food banks.
The folks at the National Gardening Association (NGA) know what works with young gardeners. NGA's program, KidsGardening: Helping Young Minds Grow (www.kidsgardening.org), offers tips, lesson plans to integrate into the curriculum and ways to connect with master gardeners in your area.
Do your due diligence when bringing in volunteers you don't know. "Districts have processes in place to vet folks working with students, such as finger printing and background checks. Follow it and explain why it's necessary," says counselor Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom) consulting.
"And remember, too, that just because someone is a passionate hobbyist doesn't mean they make a good coach," she says. "A gardener who freaks out because someone spilled the pumpkin seeds should become your technical advisor, not the person who shows kindergarteners how to sow them."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)