The Lure of Kids’ Extracurricular Activities:  The Impact, and Answers to Parents’ Questions

The Lure of Kids’ Extracurricular Activities: The Impact, and Answers to Parents’ Questions

The Lure of Kids’ Extracurricular Activities:  The Impact, and Answers to Parents’ Questions

School resumes, and kids are registering for all kinds of extracurricular programs. However, many parents have concerns about relevance and suitability, including the content, costs, benefits, and demands of these activities, wondering which ones are appropriate for their child. Here are some considerations and guidelines.

“Extracurricular activities can complement what happens in school, giving children a place to develop their talents, broaden their interests, challenge their minds, and extend their love of learning.” *

The Basics

Who and What: Extracurricular activities provide opportunities for children and teens to engage in the arts, recreation, athletics, scholarly pursuits, and more, based on their interests and preferences. These activities can supplement the learning experiences typically incorporated within a school curriculum, from kindergarten through college.

Why: Sometimes a school program does not have the capacity to meet a child’s particular needs or exceptionalities, and so that individual may want additional challenges or opportunities. Other times, kids may seek outlets that will give them a chance to extend their creativity, or to find social or emotional connections and support through meaningful interaction with others who have similar interests. Extracurricular activities can provide enjoyable, relevant, and mind-stretching ways to forge relationships, and broaden conventional educational offerings.

When and Where: Extracurricular activities are available evenings, weekends, during lunch hours, or before or after school. They may be developed within educational or various professional institutions, at community and cultural centers, or through collaborative efforts by parents, teachers and/or children. Timing often depends on space and venue availability. For example, a program may require the use of a science or computer lab, theatre, gym, swimming pool, hockey rink, art or dance studio, track, playing field, or other location.

Key Components of Extracurricular Activities: Content, Costs, Benefits, and Demands

Extracurricular activities provide creative, exploratory, and social opportunities so children can extend themselves in areas that are informal, unusual, and fun, or perhaps more disciplined or traditional. It’s up to them! Content can vary, and programs or challenges are limited only by desire and imagination. Sometimes costs can be prohibitive—especially if there are steep registration or instructional fees, or if specific equipment or materials are required. However, there are many options worth investigating such as networking and sharing resources, applying for community financial aid, and taking advantage of mentorships, partnerships, and free offerings at libraries, museums, science centers, sports arenas, and elsewhere.

Benefits of extracurricular activities include keeping children happily engaged in whatever matters to them by honoring their choices in what they want to know more about; helping children find joy in doing something new, creative, or challenging; and facilitating connectivity among those who share enthusiasms. These benefits have the added potential of enriching other areas of children’s lives by developing or improving their feelings—about learning, productivity and achievement; about themselves and their capabilities; about others and relationship-building; and about life itself, and all the experiences and excitement they can tap, consistently or from time to time.

Demands can sometimes be problematic for kids. As with adults, personal agendas become jam-packed as people juggle myriad responsibilities and commitments. Some children are inundated with homework and expectations, and struggle to keep up. Others are too tired after a full day at school to take on more activities. Certain times of year (for example, before exams, during holidays and transition times, or when family matters are pressing) may not be conducive to extracurricular pursuits. And, lots of kids prefer unscheduled downtime to regimented activity. Discovering that “sweet spot” between taking on too much and doing too little might be difficult, and so parents can be instrumental in helping children figure out a balance, enabling them to manage everything comfortably while not forfeiting potentially worthwhile opportunities to grow and learn.  

Questions Parents Ask

1. How do I know which extracurricular activities are right for my child?

Listen carefully to your child’s point of view. What are his or her opinions about various activities? Be respectful of preferences, concerns, and time constraints. Consider together the advantages or disadvantages of activities relative to expectations, expense, implications for other family members, and distance from home and school. Also, talk about how or if an activity’s social milieu aligns with how your child functions best—that is, in small or large groups, in pairs, or independently. Are individual and special learning needs accommodated? Children’s areas of strength and weakness may cut across cognitive, affective, social, and behavioral domains. Therefore, keep in mind whether an accelerated program or a more graduated one may be most advantageous for your child. Remember, however, that over-programming kids can be counterproductive for everyone involved. Excessive “busyness” can lead to fatigue and stress, and compromise healthy productivity and family harmony.

2. What type of activity content is the best?

Is it innovative? Relevant? Potentially useful or career oriented? Captivating? Informative? Appropriately challenging? Can these possibilities be combined? Some children thrive when they’re actively involved in the world around them and doing hands-on activities, whereas others prefer quiet times so they can engage in reading, writing, or reflection. For many children, extracurricular involvement provides springboards to build and cement friendships, and that social component becomes paramount. Examples of extracurricular activities include the more typical ones that involve honing skills of all sorts (debating, creative writing, sports, robotics, artistic expression, and so on), as well as leadership development and community service involvement (for instance with global causes or community organizations); camps or weekend outings (specializing in interests such as language immersion or conservation experiences); university-affiliated programs (in cross- disciplinary areas, geared at various levels); and competitions (whereby teams concentrate on subjects such as math, science, or history, and then compete locally, regionally, or even nationally in organized events). Children can consider all these extracurricular options!

3. How much choice is reasonable?

Encourage children to choose activities that interest them because then they will become more engaged, and are apt to sustain that engagement. However, when parents offer choice they open the door for possible complexities with respect to planning, transportation issues, financial considerations, and more. For example, activities such as photography, martial arts, puppetry, and chess are likely to be easier to organize than horseback riding, drum playing, snowboarding, or rowing, As a result reflection, preparation, and decision-making are required when choosing an extracurricular activity and working out the practicalities. Ideally, children should find pleasure in participating in whatever they choose to do, and acquire a sense of accomplishment that is not based on grades. Parents can encourage kids to take reasonable risks by opting to try something different, and then to accept and learn from any obstacles they encounter along the way. The bottom line is for parents to be flexible when offering kids choice. This means having an honest discussion with them about the pros and cons of selected extracurricular activities; being open to changes and fluctuations in choices; making a concerted effort to ensure that whatever their child chooses fits in with his or her needs, time frames, and aspirations; staying attuned to family dynamics; and then co-creating a sensible plan of action.

Extracurricular activities present an endless array of real-world opportunities for children and teens to learn, create, and do—and also to experience the joy of learning, creating, and doing. These activities take kids beyond the school curriculum, and represent the difference between days that are full, and days that are fully extended and shared in meaningful ways. 

Additional Reading

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, House of Anansi Press, 2014 (see pp. 167-174 for specifics on extracurricular activities); Being Smart about Gifted Education: A Guidebook for Educators and Parents by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, Great Potential Press, 2009.

*Quote excerpted from, “Extracurricular Activities,” by Joanne Foster, Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent, Volume 1, Sage 2009, pp. 343-345.

Sample Extracurricular Initiatives

Kids Now – This after school program focuses on helping young teens develop skills such as self-confidence, resilience, conflict resolution, and striving to be kind to oneself.

Brain Power – A carefully designed program devoted to helping kids of all ages maximize their intelligence and creativity, and strengthen their capacities for personal growth.

Library Youth Programs – There are more of these than you imagine, and here’s just one recent example of what’s available in the Toronto area. Check out what’s happening in your neighborhood. Toronto Tool Library 

Online Learning Options – Load of possibilities! Encourage kids to collaborate to see what they can create. These 14 robotics ideas might get them started. Science Buddies. 

Tomorrow’s Change Makers by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Eagle Harbor, 2015 – This book focuses on the importance of developing leadership skills, and on how to help kids harness the capacity to give back and to engage in worthwhile community-based activities. 

More Resources

About Creative Pursuits – This article is about helping kids thrive when life is a whirlwind. "3 Ways to Support Kids’ Intelligence and Creativity:  What to Strive for When Life’s a Whirlwind

The New Family – Brandie Weikle’s site features a series of excellent podcasts featuring experts who discuss important topics relating to juggling the many demands that comprise modern family life.  And, this is the link to episode #36: Podcast, "A New Way of Thinking about Intelligence for a New World

Author’s Note: I was inspired to write this article while watching the 2016 Olympics on television, and was moved by the accomplishments of the hundreds of athletes who demonstrated resolve and dedication. Many extracurricular activities take the form of athletic pursuits, enabling kids to become involved in activities, to connect with one another, and to aspire to succeed. I salute all young people who seek to enhance personal growth by following their dreams, and pursuing extracurricular activities.


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