Believe it or not, it is that time of year again. As we get the backpacks and new crayons ready to go for school, we might also be thinking about extracurricular activities for our children.
These programs are a great way to expose children to activities or sports that aren’t necessarily covered in the regular school curriculum. In a time of so many options and choices there are several factors that parents can consider when selecting after school activities for a child and making the most of the money spent on extra programs.
However, if you run a Google search for “extracurricular advice” you may find, on the first page, hits for “Advice on Putting Together Your Application” from Yale University and “Nurturing Children’s Interests” from Good Housekeeping. Can we nurture our children, their interests, and their chances of Ivy League acceptance all at the same time?
For many contemporary parents the answer is “We have to!” The expectations for our kids have increased exponentially since what many of us think of as our own more idyllic childhoods, even if we may be looking at the past through rose-colored glasses.
“Letting kids be kids” isn’t an easy proposition anymore, particularly in an urban environment. “Times are different now,” says Rachel Cortese, a former New York City schoolteacher and speech-language pathologist at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan. “While I think there are benefits to letting kids run around free, there are safety considerations that we didn’t have to think about 20 or 30 years ago.”
Extracurricular activities help children find their island of competency; a place where they can excel separate from their identity at school. This can be increasingly important for a student who is struggling socially or academically. An extracurricular activity tailored to their strength or talent can be a valuable way for a child to find others who share similar interests and help them discover success.
In general, Cortese says, “kids tend to do really well when they have structure, and part of that structure is having an after-school schedule.” Educational and learning specialist Ruth Lee, also extols some well-known benefits of getting kids together outside of the classroom for more physical activities. “It gives kids social interactions,” she says, at the same time helping them “get out some of their energy so they can settle and go back to their work” after school. This is particularly important, she notes, as schools cut back on recess in order to focus efforts on preparing for standardized tests—about as far from kids running around free as you can get.
Clinical psychologist Mary Rooney, Ph.D., says, after-school activities can be very important for protecting against more dangerous activities, “the hour or two after school is the highest risk time for dangerous behaviors like substance abuse, because it’s the largest chunk of time when kids are unmonitored.”
But what about the bane of modern childhood and adolescence, “overscheduling?” It is not to be taken lightly, says Susan Newman, a New York metro area social psychologist: “With very young children you do want to let them dabble in a lot of things until they find what they are really interested in,” she concedes. But “with older children you can explain to them why it’s not a good idea, that if you are spreading yourself too thin you’re not going to be able to focus and get really good at one thing.”
This urge to cover all the bases, as it were, is bad for families. “Family is the most important thing you have,” Dr. Newman says. “You want to bond with your children, you want them to know that you’re always there, you want to build the sibling relationships, because as children become older and become adults these are the people they really rely on.”
An overload of extracurricular activities also doesn’t bring the perceived benefit a lot of parents and kids are looking for: a good-looking college application. “What they’re really looking for is applicants who are well-rounded and have focus, you can see they are pursuing a goal and they really like what they are doing,” Dr. Newman says. “And not just dipping their hand in this and that and the next thing so they can fill out more lines on the application.”
How much is too much when it comes to extracurricular activities?
It’s important to provide balance to prevent a child’s day from being over-scheduled. When there’s too much on the go, children quickly become tired, cranky and consequently, are less likely to actively engage in their homework or their chosen sport or activity. Try not to be involved in more than two or three programs outside of school.
What happens as children grow older and are introduced to and enthralled by extracurricular pursuits such as sports, music, and eventually clubs and student groups? How much should parents push their kids to engage—and how much is too much? And what about the increasing popularity of highly structured activities for younger and younger children? Every parent of a child no matter how old wonders if the balance they have struck between family time, play time, structured activities, homework time, and socialization is ‘correct.’ Is there an equation?
When children are showing signs of stress and fatigue we, as parents, need to question if they are in too many programs. If you feel like you are dragging your child to class or an activity, that is a sign that the activity may not be a good fit. Children need time for school, time to explore their interests and most importantly, time, to just be kids.
Dr. Bubrick has a pretty simple calculus for how much is too much: “Can you still do your homework? Can you still get 8 or more hours of sleep each night? Can you still be a part of your family? Can you still hang out with your friends? If the answer is ‘no’ to one or more of these, then it’s too much.” He suggests that sometimes multiple but less time-consuming activities can reduce the strain on a kid’s life while still conferring the benefits of extracurricular activities.
Here are some guidelines to help you choosing extra-curricular activities:
- Encourage different experiences and activities, but don’t expect your kids to be good at — or like — all of them.
- Instead of trying to do it all, let your kids get really good at something that interests them. Their success in an area that appeals to them will boost their confidence and motivate them to explore other options.
- Sometimes we have preconceived notions of who wethink our kids are. Trust your child. Most children find their level and their interest if they have the time to do it.
- Let kids take ownership of their activities, and respect their decisions. They need to be able to fail — or even quit — without being afraid of failing or not meeting someone else’s expectations.
- Try to avoid “one-size-fits-all” extra-curricular activities. Look at each of your children as individuals, and determine what each of their natural strengths and interests are – and then find extra-curricular activities that support those.
- When children are young, it is difficult to know what their talents and interests will be. You can either wait until your children are old enough to begin to show their natural strengths and passions, or try introducing them to various activities.
- Consider how much you can spend for your children activities. It shouldn’t become a burden for the family.
- “What is the likelihood of our child continuing to participate in or benefit from this activity when he or she is no longer school age?” We want our children to be using their time wisely, and to engage in activities that will have long-term benefit.
- Let those extra-curricular activities work for you– in helping to create competent young adults who feel good about themselves and others.
- Don’t forget to give your kids the time and the place to just be kids. Giving families the time to be families is very important as well.
Choosing extra-curricular activities doesn’t have to be a nightmare. And, contrary to the message often portrayed in our culture, kids do not have to do everything to be well-rounded. In fact, a few thought-out activities which support each child’s individual interests and abilities, while also corresponding with the family’s overall values, can be immeasurably more effective for the child’s long-term well-being.