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Which extracurriculars are right for your child?


Back-to-school season is a natural time to re-evaluate your kids’ extracurricular activities: which ones to add, which ones to continue, and which to drop. With so many options, how should you and your child choose?

We decided to tackle this tough question with the tried-and-true “5 Ws and 1 H.”

What? What kinds of extracurriculars are there? Every kid needs unstructured free time, but by extracurriculars, we’re referring to those more formally structured lessons, clubs or activities outside of school. Here are a few thought-starters, and you can probably add to this list:

  • Sports (swimming, football, tennis, basketball, cheerleading, rock climbing, dance classes, skateboarding, running, martial arts, etc.)
  • Performing/visual arts (musical instruments, drawing, painting, acting, dancing)
  • Academic (STEM clubs, newspaper or yearbook, student government)
  • Scouting
  • Volunteering in the community
  • Faith- and culture-based recreational activities

Why? Extracurricular activities can offer mental, physical and social benefits: the opportunity to learn new skills, make social connections, and build on strengths and improve weaknesses. Extracurriculars give us the chance to discover what we enjoy and might even become the basis of a lifelong hobby or passion. (And sometimes we discover what we don’t like, and that’s helpful too.)

Extracurriculars can give a kid’s life more structure. They can teach time-management skills, (e.g., figuring out how to get school work done after dance class). And they get kids engaged with their parents and peers, leaving less time for boredom (and possibly mischief).

When and where: We’re lumping these together because they are valid considerations for parents. Logistics matter, especially when parents have to do the driving. Consider your family’s holistic schedule and how much time you have to devote to your child’s activities. A once-a-week piano lesson is much less impactful than travel sports. An activity that takes place on campus may be easier to accommodate than one across town. Some extracurriculars  are now available virtually as well.

How: How can you choose? You don’t! Unless your child is very young, our advice is that you offer guidance and ideas but let the child decide. Don’t force your dreams on them. Just because you enjoyed ballet or baseball doesn’t mean your child will — although it’s certainly fine to let them try. 

If your child feels stressed, isn’t getting enough sleep, or is putting up a fight about attending, it might be time to pull back. On the other hand, if they are practicing their extracurriculars during their free time, it’s a reassuring sign that they’re enjoying themselves. 

Finally, a word about high school extracurriculars. The stakes seem higher here, don’t they? What will a college admissions officer look for in terms of extracurriculars? The answers vary, but colleges do seem to look for quality, not quantity. If your student truly enjoys the extracurricular they choose, they are more likely to demonstrate care and commitment and may naturally move into a leadership role, and that is something colleges are more likely to notice. 

If they don’t have many extracurriculars because they have used that time toward a part-time job, colleges will be able to see that; just make sure they include it in their college application. And overall, extracurriculars are often less important than grades, course rigor and test scores. So it is always best if students choose activities that they find rewarding and enjoyable.

A U.S. Census study showed that children tend to have higher levels of school engagement when involved in one or more activities, like sports, lessons or clubs.

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