Are Kids Losing Interest in Your After-School Program?

We all know that when kids are interested in a subject or topic, they are more likely to participate and learn more. In an after-school program, it’s essential to keep kids interested, as it keeps them coming back. And when kids attend on a regular basis, they have better overall outcomes: fewer risk-taking behaviors, more academic growth, and better relationship-building with one another and staff.

How to Pique Kids’ Interest

There are two types of interest that often occur simultaneously. The first is situational interest, or interest that occurs because of a momentary experience that is captivating. When fostered and given tools to grow, this initial interest can lead toward lasting feelings of enjoyment and desire for continued exploration. This second form of interest, the lasting desire for continued exploration, is individual interest. It’s intrinsic in nature, although initiated by an extrinsic factor or experience.

You can promote learning and increase attention and engagement in your after-school program by triggering situational interest. However, without continued investigation and experiences to keep that interest piqued, it can fizzle away. So your goal with your programming should be to set the stage for situational interest and then offer additional opportunities that lead to individual interest. This, in turn, can grow into passions and even become college and career paths. If opportunities to explore those interests and passions are not provided, students might lose the drive to continue exploring. The four-phase model of interest development by Suzanne Hidi and K. Ann Reininger (2006) illustrates how this might be accomplished.

But what does this mean in a real-world setting? Let’s use an egg drop challenge to illustrate a way to drive interest-based learning.

Egg Drop Challenge

Phase 1

The first time you run the activity, you might simply have participants create any structure that protects the egg when it is dropped from a set height.

While it is interesting to try to come up with a way to keep an egg from breaking, once participants come up with a solution that works, they may lose interest in the concept. So you completed Phase 1, but their interest will go dormant and possibly disappear.

To sustain their interest and hopefully spark some desire to learn more (move through phases 2 and 3), you can have them complete the activity multiple times with different criteria.

Phase 2

The next time, challenge kids to think of all the ways an egg might be broken (dropping it, having it collide with something else, etc.). Then draw a comparison between the egg and the human body and have kids brainstorm a list of ways the human body might be broken. Encourage them to think of common, everyday activities that can cause harm, as well as more specialized and less frequent activities.

Phase 3

Have kids select activities they enjoy doing or are interested in and investigate ways we protect the human body when doing those activities. Create challenges for them to overcome using their eggs and what they’ve learned. Here are some examples:

  • Football: Place unprotected eggs onto a piece of cardboard or plywood. Have kids use ping-pong paddles to hit them to each other. Then have them look up what kind of technology is used in football helmets to protect the human brain, and have them create protection for their next eggs using the same principles.

  • Driving or Racing Cars: Put unprotected eggs in remote-controlled or robotic vehicles and have them either race in a defined space or purposely run their eggs into walls at high speeds. Then have kids use what they learn about driving safety devices to build and test some in their vehicles to protect their eggs.

  • Space Travel: Drop unprotected eggs into a simple vertical wind tunnel and see what happens. (The eggs are going to break, so make sure you use an old fan you don’t care about or blow the eggs out and refill them with something like rice so that when they break, they are easier to clean up.) Then create landing pods that can come safely to earth, landing their pods gently on the fan.

  • Gymnastics: Launch the eggs onto tarps using spoon, rubber band, and craft stick catapults. Talk about what happened and how that reflects what could happen to a gymnast who falls from a jump onto a hard floor because they missed the mat. Then have kids create a safe landing spot for the eggs to stop them from breaking when catapulted.

With these Phase 3 activities, you have extended the learning and sustained participants’ interest, and you have also tied your out-of-school program to other real-life examples kids may be interested in outside of STEM.

Phase 4

To sustain the interests you have developed, offer more opportunities for the kids to explore and experiment on their own. You can do this by tying more activities to the same interest list they generated (football, racing, space, gymnastics) or by using a different material than eggs to stand in as a human body and having kids innovate new ways to protect it. You might also have kids that were super engaged while building the wind tunnel or a catapult. Encourage them to look for variations of those to build and test.

Hopefully this example of modifying a common activity has illustrated how you can move from triggering situational interest in your kids by having them participate in a basic challenge to sparking individual interest that leads to sustained and passionate investigations by extending the activity. When additional opportunities are provided to encourage continued exploration of those passions, you will build more meaningful relationships with your kids, and they might begin to think of possible futures that exist for them in their areas of interest.


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Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag

Erin Hoag is the Learning Content Manager at Demco. She has a master’s in library and information studies with a focus on child and youth services. For over 10 years, she has worked in informal education, developing and running programs in museums, libraries, and community centers.