Extracurricular activities – whether before school or after school or in the community – are implicitly optional. They are, as the word implies – “extra” – in addition to school. As a parent, the choices can be freeing and helpful or confusing and challenging and perhaps, a little of both. And to add to the complexity, our families don’t merely have ballet or piano or soccer from which to choose. There are any number of additional special interests that could be explored such as robotics, pottery or martial arts. Because there are so many considerations related to extracurriculars, I thought I would explore the many complexities, ask a number of parents how their parents handled the situation and how they have decided to manage “extras” with their own children and then examine other social and emotional developmental factors in the mix and see if any helpful suggestions emerged.
First let’s acknowledge that many families don’t have the privilege of choice because of the expense of activities or the limited offerings in their neighborhoods or schools or the constraints of parents who have to work. For those who do have the privilege of choices, here are some of their potential considerations.
– care time while parents are working
– friends in the program
– giving the child a social experience
– following a child’s joy or passion or interests
– building competence for competence sake
– building competence for a school-to-career path
– developing safety skills
– scheduling (free time versus structured time, adequate time for homework)
– offering an alternative to screen time
– building social skills such as collaboration
– exploring, trying out new experiences
– health and development (and if a child has allergies or ADHD or other individual considerations)
– temperment and personality of child (introverted child may need more down time than an extroverted child)
conflict (child may fight going or doing requisite practice)
From “I make the decision of what’s best for them and they are required to go.” to “My kids have many interests so we are at some different activity every night.” to “I follow my child’s lead but only pick one.”, I received a whole range of responses. Here are a few of the stories I heard when I asked local parents about their experiences with extracurriculars.
I was always a joiner. I basically signed myself up for everything and my poor mom had to drop me off at school super early and pick me up super late. My mom never actually signed me up for stuff. It was always me telling her that I was doing a new thing. If anything, my mother would probably have had me not do so much, but I always wanted to do everything. I still use a lot of the skills I gained during those extracurriculars (as an athlete and lawyer) so for me it was incredibly valuable. – Marley
I don’t think my parents ever signed me up for anything without asking but they were big on follow through. I couldn’t skip meetings or practices. The one thing I really pushed for was going to summer camp and that was definitely a financial strain but I ended up spending ten summers there. Camp was hugely life changing and I think about it daily. I think my mom had a lot of insight into my personality and was one step ahead of things like suggesting a more rigorous Latin class. I think things like following through on commitments, enjoying learning new skills and being part of a team are all things that helped me grow. I have more kids than my parents did so I really would like them to do only one major activity at a time. – Morgan
My parents generally supported what I wanted to do, except that I had to pick one activity. I wanted to learn piano and dance, but since I had to choose, I picked dance. I’ve always regretted that I couldn’t do both. When it came to Sports, once I was in high school, my dad pressured me to try out for basketball. I liked basketball, but I was never very athletic or into sports. So for my dad, I did a week of practice, but we had to run a mile outside and my allergies were so bad, it made me really sick. I could barely breathe! So that was the end of that! In general though, my parents did not pressure me in school or in my extracurricular activities. I could have used a little more pressure academically, because I started to feel like they didn’t believe I could do better than I was doing. (Probably because I always told them I was doing my best, but I was totally full of it.) I still love to dance. I think dancing adds to my quality of life, because it makes me healthier and happier. As for piano, I’m planning on teaching myself a bit of piano just for fun. – Kristen
We were required to pay for our extracurricular activities on our own so once I really got to the point where I had a choice I had to prioritize based on my limited junior high funds. I ran, because it didn’t cost much for shoes and did cheerleading. Most team sports were cost prohibitive for me and my family. And the small private school I attended didn’t have or support leagues in elementary school. Plus, we only had one car which my dad often had at work/school. In lieu of organized activities like lessons and sports, we did a TON of park play, library programs, playdates & playgroups, and church youth activities. My mom was a master of free days for surrounding museums and zoos. Also, because my Dad was a police officer we got in free to the community pool so that was most of our summer. Overall, we were active but unstructured. I did love that my parents required us to pay. We learned savings and priorities when it came to what we wanted. Even though my opportunities were “limited” in the eyes of many I don’t feel like I missed out because I did art at home versus in a lesson. – Christy
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of satisfaction and happiness of the respondents. Those who shared the details of their extracurricular experiences as kids remember them with great fondness and appreciate how their parents’ handled their options. The only commonality I found in the examples was that parents seemed to pay close attention to the personality and temperament of the children they had and tried to match the type of activity and amount of commitment to that individual.
In addition to the above personal parent stories, there are additional considerations. Surveys of working parents found that there is significant worry about the use of time during after school hours – particularly at middle school age – when children are often left unsupervised. In my state of Ohio, for example, 23% (431,489) of K-12 youth are responsible for taking care of themselves after school. Community policing statistics consistently show a spike in alcohol and drug activity and also, violent crimes between the hours of 3:00 and 7:00 p.m. Not only can after school programming prevent high risk behaviors, but they also have the potential to promote greater feelings of competence, belonging and confidence. For more, check out “Keeping Kids Safe and Supported in the Hours After School” by the Afterschool Alliance. Learn more about after school programs in your state. Regardless of how you select the types of activities for your children, before committing to a program, assess for quality. Find out who the staff will be for the after school program or team. Do the organizers run a police background check (They should!)? Do they take references? Do they offer training? Particularly if the program is staffed by students, what supervisors are available during program hours? Ask some questions to ensure it is a quality program before signing up.
Here are some further considerations.
1.Follow passions or interests.
Certainly a child will be more motivated to participate in an activity that builds on his/her interests. Many of the examples from parents above mentioned how much they appreciated their parents looking to them for their natural curiosities to determine involvement in activities. People are intrinsically motivated in three areas: feeling a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence. You may ask yourself and your family members, “Does the activity provide any of the preceding for my specific child?” “And does it further an interest that she has shown us is significant to her?”
2. Offer limited choices.
It is a gift to have choices no matter what the circumstances. Kids, like adults, are more motivated to participate if they are involved in making choices about their participation. Parents can still set limits and hold expectations. Maybe there is not a choice about whether or not to participate (because of parents’ work commitments) but a choice of what to participate in. Or how often a child will participate. Finding even a small area for limited choice can help a child feel a sense of control and involvement and encourage greater cooperation.
3. Know your child.
Every child needs quiet time without structure. But some require it daily or else they feel a sense of anxiety and even upset. Particularly children who tend to be introverted – meaning social situations take energy from them – require some time to process their thoughts from the day without added structure before and after school. Instead of talking through their thinking with others, these children need more time for internal reflection. For more on recognizing if you have a child who tends toward introversion, check out this article “Fifteen Tips for Parenting Introverted Kids” or the book, Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
4. Balance commitments.
With multiple kids in a family in numerous activities, life can get hectic. Consider each child and how they are spending their time. Do they have enough time to get homework completed? Is there time for a weekly or more than weekly family dinner? Is there some down time in the week during which kids can engage in unstructured play? Some of the families’ examples above mentioned allowing each child to select one activity per season so as not to overcommit their time. Also consider whether you are rushing from place to place since that can contribute to an overall feeling of chaos in family life. How do you balance outside of school interests with your family’s needs for alone time and together time?
5. Honor commitments.
Once a child is signed up for an activity, following through in attending practices or meetings throughout the season is important. No matter how you choose an activity, be certain that you are fully aware of the commitments you are making before signing up. Halfway through if your child simply doesn’t like the program, they will not learn the lesson of responsibility if you allow them to drop out. Help your child follow through and honor those commitments.
6. Take safety measures.
Train your child to ask for help. Teach them to look for appropriate helpers such as, a teacher or caring mom in the event of getting lost or another problem. Do test your child on your phone number and place all emergency contacts and numbers in his backpack, jacket or other item that will remain with him.
Teams, classes and other enrichment activities can provide tremendous resources for a child. They can offer role models and adults who serve as caring coaches and teachers. Those opportunities can create valuable friendships and exercise social and emotional skills. Examining our assumptions about extracurriculars helps our own thinking about how to best handle them and facilitates constructive dialogue between family members as you create new plans. Those “extras” can offer your family a connection to the community, a deepening of skills and a love for an activity that may just last a lifetime.