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How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for Your Child

How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for Your Child

Choosing after-school activities for your children can make your head spin—art or theater, sports or chess, STEM or dance? Experts weigh in to help you determine which—and how many—extracurriculars to enroll your child in.

There is a dizzying array of options for kids looking for extracurriculars, from academic enrichment to sports teams to social interest programs. All of these choices can make knowing which one is right for your child a difficult, and overwhelming, task–plus, if a kid wants to try different things, parents can wind up spending a fortune getting them from activity to activity. So how can you make sure you and your kid have made the right after-school choices? Local after-school activity directors, moms, and child psychologists share their tips for finding the right program.

The Benefits of Getting Involved in Activities Outside of School

While after-school classes are often seen as a means of beefing up resumes for college, there are many other advantages. One key perk is the opportunity for kids to socialize. In between classes at Studio B Dance Center in Eastchester, for example, students “sit together in their group. We don’t let them take their phones out, and they just talk for a few minutes in between the classes. It kind of develops these friendships and making eye contact and interacting,” says Nancy Solomon, owner of the dance school.

“After-school activities provide an ideal environment in which to nurture social skills and confidence,” adds Shawna Stewart, program accounts specialist at MakerState LLC, a STEM enrichment program in Manhattan. “Numerous extracurricular activities work to teach children the value of working as a team to achieve a mutual goal—a skill that will benefit them in their future occupations.”

Extracurriculars can also increase positive emotions and feelings of accomplishment. “By doing the recital and being part of it, they experience a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem,” Solomon says. Plus, “it teaches them listening skills and respecting adults…independence, how to make friends, how to share,” she adds.

And each activity offers different benefits as well. “The benefits of STEM enrichment specifically are fostering ingenuity and creativity, teaching problem-solving, building resilience, and encouraging experimentation, teamwork, knowledge application, tech use, and adaption,” Stewart says.

The experiences kids have in their extracurricular classes can help shape their identity. “They have a story, when they say, ‘Hi, my name is Susie and I love to____.’ That’s who they are, that’s their interest, and that’s something to be celebrated once they do find that special interest,” Solomon says.

The Process of Finding What Your Kid Loves

The timing is a fine line between starting her early enough that she has a chance to excel in her activity, but also ensuring she’s old enough to really get something out of the classes. “Any child who goes to school is old enough to begin after-school activities,” says Carole Lieberman, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror. “[Kids] should begin by grades first, second, or third because the sooner you start enriching them with these activities, the better.”

On the other hand, if your kid is not interested in after-school classes, rest assured there’s plenty of time for him to find what he enjoys. Maybe you have a budding cinematographer or robotics engineer—these interests will develop as your child gets older. “By middle school, if not before, students should be experimenting with a diverse set of after-school endeavors that align with any interests they express,” says Kat Cohen, Ph.D., college admissions counselor and founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company.

So Many Extracurricular Options, So Little Time

When it comes to selecting an activity, Dr. Cohen says it’s important to provide a variety of options while ensuring your child is still pursuing her individual interests. For younger kids, a ranking system may prove useful in making choices. “Put together a list of possibilities in your neighborhood [including] arts and crafts, photography, dance, music, theater, Little League, and so on,” Dr. Lieberman recommends. “Then ask your child to rank them in the order they like best, so that they feel like they have chosen to do this.”

If your little one isn’t interested in conventional after-school activities, find alternative ways to engage her passions, and eventually an appropriate extracurricular may develop. “I see what their interests are, and try to extrapolate from there. Do they have a sudden interest in Detective Pikachu? I’ll see if there’s some sort of sleuthing or mystery club they can do,” says Alexa DeKalb, a mother of three living in Manhattan. “I understand the Ivy League isn’t going to offer a scholarship for ‘Most Encyclopedia Brown Books Read,’ but that’s fine—if it makes my kid passionate, maybe it’ll lead to a junior internship with a police department, and that’s something they could write about!”

In addition to personal interests, it’s also important to factor in logistics, such as time commitment, travel time, cost, and scheduling conflicts. Maybe your little one feels equally passionate about soccer and chess, but chess only meets once a week whereas soccer meets three days a week. Soccer will require certain, potentially costly, gear such as cleats, uniforms, and shin guards. You might have to drive out of town for games if he advances to the travel team. In this situation, your choice of extracurricular may come down to logistics.

The Ideal Number of Activities Depends on Your Child

When crafting your child’s schedule, it can be a balancing act between ensuring she can explore all of her interests without overwhelming her. It may be a case of trial and error to figure out what your kid’s individual threshold is. “Start with one after-school activity, then gradually add more as your child seems able to handle a more intense schedule,” Dr. Lieberman suggests.

During this time of testing the limits of your child’s energy and focus, it’s important to make sure he isn’t losing sight of the things that may be important to your family—academics, family dinners, religious practices, etc. “Older elementary children have great after-school options including music, theater, and sports, but also have a great risk of being over-scheduled,” says Elizabeth Malson, president of Amslee Institute, an online technical school specializing in child care. “Ideally, families should pick one or two activities at a time, ensuring plenty of time for academics and health.” Make sure activities he participates in aren’t infringing on his sleep schedule or friendships.

Also, if one of your kids can balance a different activity each day of the week, it doesn’t necessarily mean her sibling will be able to do the same. “Every student is different, so there is no magic number of hours that should be devoted to after-school activities: One pre-teen might be able to balance three to four pursuits while another student might feel totally overwhelmed,” Dr. Cohen says. “At the end of the day, parents should sit down with their student, brainstorm a list of activities to pursue, and create a schedule that feels manageable for the student.”

Communication and flexibility with your child are incredibly important when it comes to setting a schedule that works for both of you. After all, these activities can be the groundwork for a future degree, career, or lifelong interest.

RELATED: Check out our guide to awesome after-school activities for kids in NYC