Extracurriculars: Choosing with Care
By Gina Klein
Starting a new school year is never easy – for the child or the parents. As a parent, you have the struggles of preparing your child for what’s to come, along with readjusting bedtimes and the joys of back-to-school shopping. On top of all that, it’s time to start thinking about which after-school activities your child should sign up for. Soccer? Football? Chess club? Drama? Dance classes? Piano lessons? Art classes? With so many to choose from, how do you decide? --And are they worth it?
The good news is extracurricular activities are a good thing as long as children don’t overdo it. According to a recent study by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, children who participate in after school programs are more engaged in and have a better attitude about learning, perform better academically and enjoy an increased sense of accomplishment, competence and self-esteem. Participation can also lower children's risks of becoming depressed, using drugs and alcohol and experiencing other behavioral problems.
“I strongly think children at an early age need to be stimulated mentally, physically and socially,” says Kansas City mom Jill Scott. “My primary goal for my children is for them to engage in activities that they enjoy and go away with a sense of accomplishment.”
So, how do parents and their children go about choosing the right activities? Stephanie Miller, program director of YMCA School-Age Services, says the first thing parents should do is talk with their children to find out what they enjoy most and then visit some after school programs together.
“Parents should first check with the schools to see what kinds of after school programs are offered. The local YMCA is also a great place to check into,” she says. “Parents should then visit the different programs to ask questions and to find out if they’re providing things important to their families, such as homework assistance.”
“I initially ask my children what their interests are and if they’d be interested in taking a class, sport or other activity. I believe it’s important for them to choose at least one activity that they enjoy doing. It gives them a sense of autonomy by making their own choices,” Scott says.
However, while Scott feels it’s important for her children to choose one activity of their own, she says there are definitely times her children can benefit from an activity she chooses for them.
“If my child is struggling in a particular subject in school, I will seek out possible after school programs that provide help in that subject. I’ll e-mail the school for a list of tutors or I might also check the local library or community education that’s offered in my area,” Scott says.
Other great resources for activities include places of worship, museums, the Boys and Girls Club of America and other parents.
When planning your child’s extracurricular activities, consider your family’s schedule. Will adding an activity adversely affect family time? Will you or someone you know be able to drive your child to and from classes and practices? If not, consider activities that can be done at home, such as music lessons, or look into those that are held at school.
“The biggest obstacle I’ve found is managing time between activities for each child. This takes careful planning and research, and I suggest getting a very large calendar to place in your kitchen so everyone is fully aware of what’s going on every day of the week,” Scott says. “It’s not unusual for activities to overlap.”
Once the after school plans are in action, observe your child. Experts say to watch for signs of overscheduling. In younger children, this often takes the form of irritability, tantrums and avoiding eye contact. In older children, look out for mood swings, recurring stomachaches and complaints about the activities themselves. And at any age, if the schoolwork begins to suffer, it’s time to cut back.
“I avoid overscheduling by limiting my kids to one or two activities each. It’s not beneficial to anyone in the family to be tired and stressed out on a daily basis,” Scott says.
It’s important to remember, too, that not all activities will work out and your child might not want to finish what she started. If this happens, Miller says to question your child and the people working with her to find out what the real reason might be.
“The more parents are involved, the more they’ll understand,” she says. “Not everything is perfect and not everything a child chooses will be perfect. You make that decision and you move on and hope the next one will be more successful.”
Gina Klein is a Kansas City mom and writer who is carefully planning an extracurricular activity of her own for the year.