Co-designing activities with children boosts wellbeing

Dr Alyssa Milton from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre shares learnings from a new study on the benefits of children-led wellbeing programs in outside school hours care (OSHC).

A close up of a woman standing outside in front of a green tree. A close up of a woman standing outside in front of a green tree.
Image: Dr Alyssa Milton unpacks a study that recognises the importance of developing wellbeing programs that children can lead in OSHC.

Out of school hours care, affectionately known as OSHC, is booming. It is the fastest growing childhood education and care sector in Australia, now catering to nearly half a million primary school children. Enrolments have surged 110% over the last 20 years. Our new research shows that designing OSHC activities in partnership with children and their communities through a process called co-design achieves significantly more for their social wellbeing.

OSHC – more than ‘just convenient care’

Educators in school-age care services are there for children before and after the school bell rings, and even during the school holidays. OSHC is now an essential service for many Australian families, giving them a major hand to juggle their work commitments, family life and social responsibilities.

Since children can spend over 10,000 hours in OSHC throughout their primary school years, ensuring better quality OSHC for all children is a huge developmental opportunity for these essential services.

We know that in the latest Australian Early Development Census, data shows that 22% of 5-year-olds experience developmental or wellbeing vulnerabilities when they start school. However, schools and health services cannot be the sole providers of wellbeing-focused initiatives for children.

Given the rapid growth of OSHC and its potential to support child development and wellbeing, these services warrant improved attention and investment. A 2021 literature review (PDF 410 KB) completed on behalf of the NSW Department of Education emphasises that OSHC needs to become ‘more than just convenient care’, as OSHC services have the potential to be critical infrastructure that positively support children’s development and social, emotional, physical and cognitive wellbeing.

The Connect, Promote and Protect Program

Since 2016, the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre and Uniting NSW.ACT have teamed up to work with communities to understand how children’s wellbeing can be supported and enhanced through OSHC. Working with communities, especially the children themselves, our team has co-designed the Connect, Promote and Protect Program (CP3). Children and educators in the program work together to create unique activities that broaden their experiences, promote social and community connections, and enhance their wellbeing across social, emotional, cognitive and physical domains.

Importantly, this is not a one-size fits all program. Through structured program delivery including workshops, voting and intentional conversations, children collectively create and evaluate their own unique wellbeing program. This places children’s voices at the centre of the decision making and activity development, which promotes both Quality Areas 1 and 5. Example activities co-designed by children are unique to each OSHC and have ranged from robotics, to building a chicken coop, to knitting beanies for people experiencing homelessness.

Building skills, connection and wellbeing

We evaluated our program in 5 OSHC sites in Sydney, NSW. Our findings highlighted the positive impact of the Connect, Promote and Protect Program has on children's social wellbeing. Participating children showed increases in their prosocial behaviours like kindness and reductions in peer problems like bullying. These outcomes affect children’s futures.

We know from the academic literature that school children who are frequently bullied are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, misconduct and poorer academic achievement. Children who frequently engage in prosocial acts are more likely to build strong friendships, excel academically and are more satisfied at school overall.

Equally striking in our research were the stories of the program’s transformative impact on educators and volunteers, who personally built skills, wellbeing and a sense of community (Quality Area 4). This is important, as we know staff satisfaction and wellbeing is a critical element of a high-quality program. Strong relationships between children and staff are central to delivering optimal child outcomes across the primary school years, yet staff turnover and churn in the sector is high. Feeling valued and part of the school-aged care community may help.

Educators in our study spoke of how the process of co-design with children helped them develop new ways of engaging with children, and how impactful it was when they witnessed better engagement of children who did not usually participate in activities.

As one OSHC coordinator who participated in the study reflected (page 21):

[For some children] initiating play and interacting with each other is really challenging ... [through the] robotics and coding program, they were all initiating in play together, sharing their experience ... but also working together as a group and learning through play how to connect with each other through their interests.

It was also noted how this type of engagement with children and their communities strengthened the relationship between families and OSHC (Quality Area 6), enabling families to be more involved in decision-making and increasing awareness of their children’s talents and capabilities.

Another participant, a service manager, said (page 7):

It leads to happy parents. Parents are happy to see the different, the new, the challenging activities. Children learning a different sport or a different skill or giving back to the community, which, that feedback gets fed through to the provider, to the service.

Embedding co-design as routine practice

The co-design approach demonstrates the power of collaboration among OSHC communities, particularly by creating spaces within OSHC where children’s voices are heard so they can shape meaningful and impactful programs. The United Nations has long viewed children as competent humans who have the right and capability to contribute to decisions that affect their lives. In OSHC settings, both ACECQA frameworks (PDF 27.1 MB) and research have echoed the importance of services listening to children’s voices to improve their offering. Using a structured approach to co-designing activities with children and their communities can raise the standard of care provided in the sector.

When designing activities at your service, it is key that you move beyond simply asking children, “What would you like to do?”, but also explore this in greater depth to enhance wellbeing.

You might ask, “How can this activity help you to be healthy? Happy? Kind? Part of a team or community?” If the activity doesn’t, you can then think collectively with children about how the activity can be enhanced to do so.

Our research underscores that OSHC can play a vital role in supporting children’s wellbeing and learning. We argue innovation and co-design in OSHC presents a path forward to support all Australian children to thrive as they grow.

On the left hand side a close up of a child wearing school uniform using a screwdriver to build an object. On the right hand side is a child wearing school uniform, safety goggles and a hat using a screwdriver to tend to a rabbit hutch. On the left hand side a close up of a child wearing school uniform using a screwdriver to build an object. On the right hand side is a child wearing school uniform, safety goggles and a hat using a screwdriver to tend to a rabbit hutch.
Image: Co-designing activities with children helps broaden their experiences and enhance their wellbeing.
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