How to Choose Afterschool Activities

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How to Choose Afterschool Activities

Although parents worry about overloading kids’ schedules with extracurricular activities, their academic, social and physical benefits are hard to ignore. The Afterschool Alliance, an information clearinghouse and advocacy group, reports that kids who participate in after-school programs have better school attendance, higher grades and loftier aspirations about graduation and college attendance. They’re less likely to use drugs or get into trouble with police, and—because they log less screen time—kids in after-school programs are at lower risk of obesity. Kids also develop social and leadership skills in after-school programs as they interact with peers in cooperative roles and mentoring relationships. Now that’s an impressive list of benefits.  
Before signing up, do your homework. These guidelines will help you sort the best from the rest.

Content. If possible, let kids choose activities based on their personal interests, says Susan Kuczmarski, EdD, author of “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go.” Help your child find activities that reflect who they are and what they want to learn, instead of imposing your preferences on them. Kids flourish when they’re deeply engaged.

Quality. Afterschool programs aren’t created equal. The best programs offer much more than homework help, says Sara Hill, PhD, senior consultant for the National Institute on Out-of-School Time. Discipline-based activities that allow kids to create a quality product over a period of time are best, she says. For instance, kids might learn math and science by building a boat or practice art and leadership by putting on a play or musical.

Staffing. You’re looking for more than a babysitter. Staff members should be professionals with bona fide skills and experience. Programs with strong community connections usually have the best resources, Hill says. Kids may get to work with artists, scientists and athletes from local organizations, like museums and colleges. These opportunities expose kids to real-life role models.

Movement. After-school sports show kids the value of practice and encourage persistence. But the benefits of exercise are even bigger. John Ratey, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” prescribes exercise for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (and everyone else) because exercise boosts mood, improves learning and memory, and relieves stress. Being a jock is anything but dumb.

Leadership. Extracurricular activities, including sports and clubs, are ideal places for kids to explore and practice what it means to be a group leader, says Kuczmarski. When kids take responsibility for organizing group work and producing results, they learn valuable social skills. Encourage your child to take on leadership roles whenever possible.

Logistics. Rather than causing burnout, afterschool activities can provide balance to a class schedule that is overly academic, Kuczmarski says, if locations and timing fit your lifestyle. It’s OK to keep kids busy, but avoid signing on to so many programs that you’ll be scrambling from one to the next. Pay attention to cost as well. Good programs don’t necessarily cost big bucks. Many quality programs receive funding from grants and community partnerships.

As you weigh the options, keep in mind this goal: You want your child to be a well-rounded citizen and a healthy, happy person, says Hill. Afterschool activities can provide enrichment, adventure and variety. They shouldn’t be driven by high-stakes testing and they shouldn’t be box-fillers for college applications. Kids don’t want to participate in programs that are just more school after school. The good news, says Hill, is that innovative programs promote learning without rote or repetition.

Check out San Diego's Afterschool Activities Guide for a variety of awesome programs that are sure to spark your child's interest. Out-of-school certainly doesn't mean out-of-opportunities. 

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a freelance writer, mother of two, and former educator.

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