Tuesday is hip hop dance. Wednesday is yoga. Thursday is cross-training. Sunday is lacrosse. Basketball hasn't been scheduled yet. Exhausted much? That's my 10-year-old's activity schedule. Kids don’t have to think about developing their brains﹣but as parents, we are thinking about it on their behalf. Experts agree, brain development happens naturally as kids explore the world around them. So, it makes sense that the more parents add to and vary their children’s daily experiences, the more connections the brain is building. On top of that, we want them to be active and love learning new things. So of course after-school activities are good for kids but how frequently and which ones are the best?
When my children were younger, I was able to build a schedule that allowed me to shuttle my kids to activities that interested them and their friends—ice hockey, soccer, dance, music, and lacrosse—what I consider basic fare widely available in many suburban areas. It wasn’t until my son enrolled in a middle school with an intentionally vibrant after-school clubs program that my son’s interests began to widen. He was introduced to activities such as sailing, Model UN, and 3D printing. It was thrilling to see him try something new that he would not have otherwise considered. He was having fun with his friends, with teachers who knew him in an environment I trusted. Even better was that I didn’t need to drive him. Though some of those interests have faded, others have grown more bright. Now that he is in high school, he's not afraid to learn new things or suggest new clubs to start.
So, when it came time for us to evaluate private elementary school options for our daughter, we were looking for a vibrant after-school program with opportunities for her growth and development too. Now when I pick her up from her enrichment activities at school, she doesn't want to leave. I can see very clearly that she is developing academic, social, and wellness skills. She's had many joyful experiences including performing in a Shakespeare play, making sushi, and even earned a degree in Hogwarts Wizardry.
As for answering how many activities and which ones are the right fit for your child, only you really know the answer to that and it's likely to change as they age. But here are some things to consider:
- Stay local. School and town recreation activities are a good place to start. You are likely to get what you pay for but it's a way to assess a genuine interest from a passing phase. I'm impressed with the creativity of the teachers in our school.
- Consider timing. How are your child's (and your) energy level at particular times of the day? Are weekends better? How will traffic impact you?
- It takes a village! The more you team up with other parents to share the (car)load, the better it will be for you and your child. Talk with your children's friends parents. See what you can come up with. You are likely to make a new friend in the process, too.
- Rent or borrow to get started. You probably have a friend with gently used equipment, instruments, and art supplies no longer in use by them. Once your child finds an interest that sticks, you can buy what's needed.
- Cost. Start small to control costs. Staying local helps with that too. Activities for younger kids tends to be less expensive than for older kids. Don't commit to a year for the discount. It's better to pay a little more for a short period to see if it's a good fit. Professional level classes aren't required for kids to develop. Growth happens in the process, not the end product. Finally, investing in your kids when they young saves money and frustrations in the long run.
We've decided to allow our kids' interests guide our decisions on their activities. We don't really want to limit any new (appropriate) interests our kids have so some parts of the year are busier than others. But when the activities are developing their brains, joyful, and at their school and with friends, it's hard to refuse.