Make Smart Choices for After-school Activities

Enrichment 315

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, and because they log less screen time, they are 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

Let kids choose activities based on their personal interests, says Susan Kuczmarski, 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.

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 or musical.

You want 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, says Hill. 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.

Extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs, are ideal places for kids to explore and practice what it means to be a group leader, says Kuczmarski. 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.

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. 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, keep 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, and they shouldn’t be box-fillers for college applications. Kids don’t want to participate in programs that are just more school after school. Innovative programs promote learning without rote or repetition.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a freelance writer, personality psychologist, mother of two and former educator.

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