If you ever feel like your kid's personal chauffeur, ferrying them to numerous after-school activities, you're not alone. And you're totally forgiven for wondering if they're more hassle than they're worth. But extracurricular activities come with a wealth of benefits for your child — beyond the obvious skills like mastering that backhand at tennis lessons or being able to count to 100 in Spanish.
For starters, after-school activities let kids figure out what they like, and what they're good at. "When kids are selecting which activities to participate in they are looking inward and deciding if they are enjoying it, which creates self-awareness and a sense of knowing what they like, what they don't and how to make decisions accordingly," explains Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C.
Giving kids something to do that interests them can increase their confidence and give them direction and purpose, says Hafeez. And it doesn't have to be sports: being part of a volunteer group, marching band, photography or computer lab comes with the same benefits of being a part of a peer group. That confidence can transfer into other areas of their lives, for example helping them to thrive in their studies.
Away from the structure of the classroom, after-school activities can help kids develop socialization skills, says author and practicing clinical psychologist Dr. John Mayer. Because after-school activities give kids more time to interact freely, they have the opportunity to practice and experiment with socialization skills. They are allowed to fail, and then learn from their failures and establish successful socialization skills, which are vital experiences for them, explains Mayer.
It may be a controversial statement, but here's the truth: kids don't have to make close friends at school. It's great if it happens, of course, but if it doesn’t, after-school activities can be fantastic places for children to develop friendships that don't exist in the classroom. "There is a good chance that in the after-school activity, the other children are like yours because they are sharing the same interests or passions," says Mayer.
Speaking of passion, one of the greatest benefits of after-school activities is that they can help a child discover what really ignites a fire within them. "One of the biggest deficits that I encounter in teenagers that leads to substance abuse, aggression, poor grades, lack of motivation, delinquency and on and on, is that they have not tapped into their passions," says Mayer. Kids who find a passion early on have an even greater incentive to stay focused, and learn what is required to work toward a goal.
Not all after-school activities encourage teamwork, but many of them do. "Team sports are great for building teamwork and communication skills, and they are also good at helping kids develop some strategic thinking: what’s the other team good at? How will we defend against that?" says Katherine Firestone, founder of Fireborn Institute, a non-profit that provides parents with clear, practical, and easy-to-remember strategies to help their children thrive in school. If team sports aren't for your child, individual activities like chess are also great for strategic thinking, creativity and problem-solving.
"After-school activities benefit parents by giving them the peace of mind that comes with knowing your kids are busy doing something beneficial and productive and not just 'hanging around'," says Hafeez. "This is especially true for parents of pre-teens and teens where drugs, alcohol and sex may be of concern, and for working parents who aren't home after school."
All benefits aside, the decision to do after-school activities lies with your child — and if they really don't want to do it, it's best not to force them. However, it's worth thinking about why your child doesn’t want to do any after-school activities, says Firestone. Is it because they need some quiet time at home after an over-stimulating day at school? Or is it because they are worried about bullying? "If it’s bullying, it’s important to find an activity they can get involved in where there aren’t any kids that are teasing your child already and where you kid has the opportunity to meet new kids in a less scary way (think individual sports, like chess, tennis, or swimming)," says Firestone.
If your child has to go to after-school activities because you have work or other commitments, or you just think it would be beneficial for them, suggest that they join something with their friends, says Bianca Marcu, a licensed professional counselor at Clarity Clinic Chicago. She suggests asking your child to pick one thing they like and try it out for a few weeks, giving them the option of leaving the activity after a month if they really do not enjoy their time spent there. "Chances are that if they gain a sense of being a part of something (other than school) that gives them a greater sense of purpose, they will not want to leave," she says.
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