Make Smart Choices for After-School Activities
The demands of schoolwork may cause you to hesitate when considering after-school activities. Although you don't want to overload your child's schedule, the academic, social and physical benefits of extracurricular programs are hard to ignore.
The Afterschool Alliance, an information clearinghouse and advocacy group, reports kids who participate in after-school programs have better school attendance, higher grades and loftier aspirations about graduation and college attendance. They're less likely to use drugs or get into trouble with police and — because they log less screen time — at a lower risk of obesity. Kids also develop social and leadership skills in after-school programs as they interact with peers in cooperative roles and mentoring relationships. That's an impressive list of benefits.
What to consider
Do your homework before signing your child up for an activity. The following guidelines help you sort the best from the rest:
Content – If possible, let kids choose activities based on their personal interests, says Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D, author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent's Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go. Help your children find activities that reflect who they are and what they want to learn, instead of imposing your preferences on them. Kids flourish when they're deeply engaged.
Quality – After-school programs aren't created equal. The best programs offer much more than homework help, says Sara Hill, senior consultant for the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. Discipline-based activities that allow kids to create a quality product over a period of time are best, she says. For instance, kids might learn math and science by building a boat, or practice art and leadership by putting on a play.
Staffing – You're looking for more than a babysitter. Staff members should be professionals with bona fide skills and experiences. Programs with strong community connections usually have the best resources, Hill says. Kids may get to work with artists, scientists and athletes from local organizations, such as museums and colleges. These opportunities expose kids to real-life role models.
Movement – After-school sports show kids the value of practice and encourage persistence, but the benefits of exercise are even bigger. John Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, prescribes exercise for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (and everyone else) because it boosts moods, relieves stress, and improves learning and memory. Being a jock is anything but dumb.
Leadership – Extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs, are ideal places for kids to explore and practice what it means to be a group leader, Kuczmarski says. When kids take responsibility for organizing group work and producing results, they learn valuable social skills. Encourage your child to take on leadership roles whenever possible.
n Logistics – Rather than causing burnout, after-school activities can provide balance to a class schedule that is overly academic if locations and timing fit your lifestyle, Kuczmarski says. It's OK to keep kids busy, but avoid signing on to so many programs that you'll be scrambling from one to the next. Pay attention to cost as well. Good programs don't necessarily cost big bucks. Many quality programs receive funding from grants and community partnerships.
As you weigh the options, Hill advises keeping this goal in mind: You want your child to be a well-rounded citizen and a healthy, happy person. After-school activities can provide enrichment, adventure and variety. They shouldn't be driven by high-stakes testing or be box-fillers for college applications. Kids don't want to participate in programs that are just more school after school.
The good news, Hill says, is innovative programs promote learning without rote or repetition. If you can't find quality after-school activities near you, contact your school district to advocate for programs you'd like to see. Out-of-school shouldn't mean out-of-opportunities. n
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a freelance writer, personality psychologist, mother of two and former educator.