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Choosing an after-school activity for your child

Don't sign your child up for a new after-school activity before considering these expert points.

Choosing an after-school activity for your child

As a caring parent, you want the best for your child, but picking and choosing activities that will be fun and constructive can be overwhelming. From music lessons and sports to hobbies and clubs, there are so many choices, all of which run the gamut of competitiveness, expense and time commitment. Then there’s the question of letting your child pick their own after-school activities versus you picking the activities you think are best. So many things to figure out! Where do you start?

Before choosing an after-school activity for your child, consider these general questions:

Is it enough or too much?

Before signing your child up for anything, consider their overall week. If your child is attending a full day of school, do not overbook their schedule. Make sure they have enough time to do homework and get enough sleep, which is paramount for healthy development.

Encourage your child to choose an activity they think will be fun. Childhood is the best time for exploring interests — support this!

Potential signs of too few activities:

  • If you are going crazy being at home with a child who is constantly complaining of boredom, perhaps an organized activity would help.

Potential signs of too many activities:

  • Chances are if you are tired from dragging your child from place to place, your child is also tired!

What type of activity is best for your child?

Consider the following before signing your child up for an activity:

  • It may sound obvious, but make sure it’s something that interests them.
  • If your child is old enough to express interest in a particular activity, listen to them!
  • Trial classes — which are usually free or discounted for the first time — are a great way to gauge interest.
  • If trials are not an option, present your child with several choices and allow them to choose (assuming they are old enough to have a preference).
  • If your pediatrician or your child’s teacher has suggested participation in a certain activity for a specific reason (such as more exercise) but your child has zero interest in it, more than a little encouragement may be needed.
  • Consider how you want your child to participate in the activity. Are they just learning or do they want to be on a competitive team? Are music lessons leading to a recital or performance or can you opt out if your child doesn’t want to get on the stage?

Try these tactics to up your child’s enthusiasm:

  • Sign up for a new activity with a friend.
  • Use some incentives or rewards (but be warned: this is a slippery slope!).
  • Allow your child to choose their own activity as a reward for completing an activity of your choice.
  • Consider more than one activity, if your schedule allows.

What skills would you like your child to hone?

While almost all activities will help kids improve certain skill sets, such as focus and social skills, consider what you’d like your child to hone in on and try to choose something that plays to that. And at the same time, keep your child’s specific strengths in mind and work to find something that caters that, as well. For instance, if your kiddo is athletic, but needs to work on interacting with others, a team sport, such as soccer, may be a good choice.

Here is a breakdown of types of activities and how they can add to your child’s positive development:

Team sports (soccer, basketball, baseball) can help with:

  • Attention/ focus.
  • Physical fitness/stamina.
  • Gross motor skills (running, jumping, kicking, balance, coordination).
  • Social skills (team work, sportsmanship, communication, leadership).
  • Behavior (discipline, anger management, assertiveness/shyness, impulse control).

Team sports address the same issues as individual sports for children under 4 years old. This may not be true for older children and sports may become more competitive.

Individual sports (gymnastics, swimming, tennis, karate) can help with:

  • Attention/focus.
  • Physical fitness/stamina.
  • Gross motor skills.
  • Social skills (especially in competitive individual sports).
  • Behavior.
  • Self-esteem/awareness. For children who have low self- esteem, it is best to begin with non-competitive sports.

For children who need counseling services (emotional, behavioral and other) and are athletic, you may want to try movement therapy as an alternative or in addition to traditional “talk” therapy.

Clubs (girl/boy scouts, book clubs, religious groups) can help with:

  • Social skills.
  • Behavioral skills.
  • Self-esteem/awareness.
  • Cognitive skills (learning, broadening education).

Classes (cooking, sewing, art, drama) can help with:

  • Attention.
  • Fine motor skills (dexterity, ability to do detail work).
  • Cognitive skills (math, learning).
  • Self esteem/awareness.
  • Behavior.

The arts are known for their therapeutic qualities. If you have a child who needs counseling services (emotional, behavioral or other) and enjoys artistic activities, try art, dance or music therapy).

What will the activity mean for you?

It’s also important to consider yourself, your schedule and your financial means before signing your child up for something, as you’ll be investing time and money into it, as well. Two things to take into account:

  • Cost. Generally speaking, club activities tend to be less expensive than private or semi-private lessons, and don’t necessarily require a commitment to a certain number of lessons.
  • Travel and driving time. Consider any and all travel involved. Are you going to need to pick your child up from school and drive 45 minutes to an activity? This is going to have an impact on your day! Can you and your child reasonably add this commute to your schedule? There’s nothing wrong with traveling to an activity, but keep the driving time and costs incurred (and snacks needed in the car) in mind.

What if my child hates the activity we chose?

Well, it happens. You’re not alone if you’ve ended up paying the balance of expensive lessons after a constant tug-of-war with your child and they suddenly lose interest. If your child is participating in a class or lessons that they truly dislike, you need to have a conversation about whether or not bailing-out is an option. And keep in mind: Using the “we paid a lot of money for these lessons” rant does not impress kids or make them feel guilty.

Your child’s age and level of maturity are a big part of this chat.  Luckily, expensive or not, most lessons and classes are only one season or one semester long. Sticking it out can sometimes be rewarding, but suffering usually isn’t. You need to make the decision that is best for your child and your family. Consider these points:

  • Are they part of a team that is counting on their participation?
  • Are there a few lessons left or several?
  • Can you get a refund? (Sometimes you can if you bail-out early in the session)

And don’t forget to ask why your child dislikes the activity. This might seem like an obvious question, but parents often misjudge this. Don’t assume your child wants to quit because they don’t like the activity. When your child says they don’t like an activity, they might also be saying:

  • The teacher is going too fast for me.
  • The coach won’t let me play as much as I want to.
  • Somebody in the class (or on the team) is bothering me.
  • I’m afraid to be in a recital or performance.
  • This activity is too difficult/easy for me.
  • I don’t like to practice.

It’s worth spending a little time to get to the bottom of the issue. Your child might not realize that you can speak to the teacher or coach and possibly resolve the conflict.

All in all, after-school activities should engage your child in a positive way, whether they are trying a sport, music or a class meant to help them develop skills. If they can discover a passion in the process, then you’ve struck gold. Keep your expectations realistic and age-appropriate, and remember that you may need to try a few different types of activities before you find one that really works for your child (and for you).

Shoshana Dayanim, PhD, is a developmental psychologist. She has written articles guiding parents to local age-appropriate activities and for research psychology journals.