Between being a student myself and working as a college professor, I have operated on an academic calendar for the better part of 30 years. Many people might view New Years as a time for evaluation and changes, but I see that time as fall. Once Labor Day weekend has come and gone, I am ready to make big changes in my family and evaluate where we are at. Frequently in our family, I rhetorically ask if we are overscheduled. There is no getting around school demands – pick-up, drop-off, homework, play dates – but we can control how much our children participate in after school activities.
While it’s good to evaluate family schedule and dynamics, there is clear evidence it is worth the challenges associated with kid after school activities. Children and teens who participate in anything from soccer to music lessons have better academic success, have better social skills, have fewer behavior problems, and are more likely to go to college. The benefits of these extracurricular activities seem to be true for all children, regardless of family finances, family structure, or type of activity.
As young as 2nd and 3rd grades, we see these positive outcomes of after school activities and these positive outcomes become even stronger as children grow up. So, there is clear evidence that extracurricular activities are good for kids.
Most studies have found that the benefits of extracurricular activities are linear, meaning that 2 activities are better than 1, 3 activities are better than 2, and so on. Although some have argued that kids can be overscheduled in activities, there is only modest evidence to suggest this. However, if participation in extracurricular activities is so intense that your child is falling behind in school, it is creating family stress on children or parents, or it is preventing social and family time together, then it is time to reevaluate.
When talking with families, I recommend the following guidelines.
- Do at least one after school activity a season for each kid. It’s okay if this is the same activity year-round, but make sure to give siblings the chance to be different from each other.
- Try out different activities. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the world of select sports at a young age but try to make sure your child is exposed to lots of different activities. One of my children has been obsessed with soccer since learning to walk. We have a very active soccer schedule between school league and select soccer. I am always looking for ways to introduce other activities – basketball, science camp, music lessons, swimming. So far, this child is still 100% soccer – and that’s fine. But at least exposure to other activities has allowed an affirmation that soccer is the preferred after school activity.
- Have family rules. Your family can prohibit certain activities, due to concerns, cost, or strain on family. Your family can also require certain activities. I talk with many families now who are against football for their children for health reasons; I know other families that have rules against baseball because of time commitments and STEM classes because of costs. I know families who mandate Japanese school for their children and others who require swim lessons. These family rules are important. Explain them to your children. It’s an opportunity to have an honest conversation with your children about values you hold. Over time, these rules may change or evolve. That’s okay too.
- Let your kids follow their interests. I have often seen families where a parent has a clear idea of what activities their child will participate in. It can be hard when that plan doesn’t work out. One woman I know drove her daughter to softball for 3 years, with tons of tears and fights. The mother was a very talented softball player in her youth and wanted the same for her daughter. It took her a long time, and lots of money and miles on the minivan, to accept that would not be her daughter’s path – she simply preferred dance classes to softball. Listen to your children and allow them to follow their own interests. In the long run, you’ll both be happier.
- Don’t let your child quit. If your child enrolls in an activity, they must complete the season or class length. No. Matter. What. There are plenty of reasons why this is true (learn more here), but briefly, commitment and completion of an activity build the capacity for resilience and grit in your child.
As I take stock of my family, I know two things. One: We are exhausted and have a family calendar that looks like a NASA launch. Two: My children love their activities, are doing well at school, and are happy. Overall, I’ll call that a win.