Midafternoon rolls around, school’s out, now what? You want to fill your child’s spare hours with meaningful activities, and if you’re a working parent, you most likely have to. But it may be hard to shoehorn a less-than-athletic child into sports or turn a tone-deaf one on to music lessons. Then there’s the cost of activities to consider.

Luckily, many communities offer interesting and cost-effective alternatives to the usual fare. With some digging, you may unearth a program that better fits your child and budget.

Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, says after-school programs serve three important purposes: “First, they’re a lifeline for working parents and secondly, they provide children with role models and great things to be a part of as opposed to being unsupervised and potentially in danger.” Third and most exciting to Grant, however, is the huge advantage she sees for children in simply being exposed to an after-school curriculum.

It makes sense. Since so many schools face budget cuts and overcrowding, so much the better if learning can be extended for a few extra hours a day. But for optimal participation, after-school learning should also be fun.

Museums are particularly adept at serving up fun learning opportunities. Check if there’s a science or natural history museum in your area that offers after-school classes. It might be just the ticket for a kid who’s crazy about rocks or bugs or asteroids. A budding artist could create while learning about the great masters if a local art museum offers kids’ painting or drawing lessons, as many do. Zoos and wildlife centers frequently feature child-oriented programs that earn rave reviews from the younger set.

Public libraries are an often overlooked resource for enrichment classes and in many cases, their offerings are free. Retired teacher Karen Gevers runs an after-school book club for 9- to 12-year-olds at the City of Rancho Mirage Public Library in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Kids sign up in advance and are given a kit which includes the book to be discussed. On meeting day, Gevers mostly lets the kids drive the discussion, making for a relaxed social setting but one in which reading comprehension still improves. “Many parents have commented that after book club, it was like a door opened for their child and they were more interested in reading because they saw it could be a recreational, enjoyable activity,” she says.

Community centers run a variety of after-school programs and are usually found within walking distance, an important consideration when transportation is a problem. The better ones feature tutors who not only help kids complete homework, but also sharpen cognitive skills in fun ways—think multiplication games or rounds of Monopoly. Homework completion is not to be discounted, says Grant: “When your kid’s in a great after-school program and if at pickup the homework is done, it means you get to spend that much more quality time with him at home.”

Volunteer opportunities can give older children a sense of purpose and provide countless benefits.

Research has shown that kids who volunteer are less likely to become involved in at-risk behaviors. Psychological, social, and intellectual growth occurs while adolescents learn new life skills and simultaneously improve their community. Inquire whether your local government runs something similar to Youth City, an innovative program in Salt Lake City aimed at tweens and young teens. You might call a local food bank. Many food banks welcome child volunteers, who put their energy to use sorting donations. Or turn to websites like Afterschool Alliance (afterschoolalliance.org), VolunteerMatch (volunteermatch.org), and the Youth Volunteer Corps (yvc.org) for other ideas and opportunities in your area.

Try thinking outside the box the next time you’re considering an after-school activity for your child. You may be surprised at the diversity of activities you’ll discover!

Look for inventive after-school classes or activities at:

Public libraries
Art, science, natural history, other themed museums
Zoos or wildlife centers
Community centers
Churches, synagogues, and mosques
Local government offices