Healthy Kids     Early Education     K-12     After School     Camps    

6 things to consider when choosing an after school activity

How to choose the right enrichment for your child

kids doing karate

The intense demands of school work may cause you to hesitate when it comes to after-school time. Although you don’t want to overload you child’s schedule, the academic, social and physical benefits of extracurricular programs are hard to ignore.

The Afterschool Alliance, an information clearinghouse and advocacy group, reports 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.

READ MORE: Best enrichment programs in the Hudson Valley

What to consider

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, Ed.D., 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. After-school programs aren’t created equal. The best programs offer much more than homework help, says Sara Hill, Ph.D., 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 a musical.

READ MORE: Is my child ready for music lessons?

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, M.D., 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.

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.

READ MORE: How early is too early to start enrichment?

Logistics. Rather than causing burnout, after-school activities can provide balance to a class schedule that is overly academic, Kuczmarski says, if locations and timing fit your lifestyle. It’s okay 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. After-school 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.

Innovative programs promote learning without rote or repetition. If you can’t find quality after-school activities near you, contact your school district to advocate for programs you’d like to see. Out-of-school shouldn’t mean out-of-opportunities.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist, former educator and mom of two eager learners. She is the author of “Detachment Parenting.”