Helping Families Choose Age-Appropriate Extracurricular Activities
Many parents encourage their children to become involved in extracurricular activities as a way to promote their development. Extracurricular activities help children develop motor skills and improve physical fitness, while also building their cognitive and social skills, all of which can enhance children’s sense of well-being.1 To help children receive the most benefits from extracurricular activity involvement physically, emotionally, and socially, they should participate in the right amount of activity for their age level and abilities. Adults facilitating children’s extracurricular activities can learn how to make the activity more developmentally friendly and recognize when it may not be appropriate for a child.
Research on parents’ perceptions of children’s extracurricular activity involvement reveals that parents in the United States may be becoming more involved in children’s choice of activities and the intensity in which children practice and rehearse. In one study analyzing parents’ perceptions of their children’s extracurricular participation in Rome, Italy, and in Los Angeles, California, both groups of parents encouraged their children to participate in extracurriculars to improve their performance in other activities. For example, families in L.A. and in Rome reported that extracurricular activities helped their children work on executive function skills like successfully managing time needed to complete schoolwork while also managing time requirements for organized activities outside of school. Parents also believed participation in extracurricular activities helped build their child’s self-confidence and assertiveness.2
Interestingly, there were some differences between the way Roman parents and parents from L.A. perceive their role in facilitating their child’s extracurricular activity participation. Parents form L.A. felt the need to be very involved in the child’s choice of activities and training.2 This correlates with national statistics revealing that 3 in 10 parents coached their child’s sports activities in the last year.3 Parents from L.A. supervised their children closely during activities, whereas parents from Rome had much less involvement in their child’s training and did not often emphasize the importance of the child’s success in extracurriculars.2
In addition to becoming involved in children’s choice of activities and training, parents in the United States may also be placing their child in more time intensive activities that are emotionally or physically demanding. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports this trend may be occurring because:
- Parents feel pressure to build their child’s skills and aptitude from an early age to develop a ‘high-achieving’ child.
- The college admission process has become more competitive and children are encouraged to build strong resumes with lots of extracurricular activities.
- Adult expectations are placed on children at an earlier age – children are expected to manage their time commitments for both extracurricular activities and school work.4
Involvement in extracurriculars can be beneficial for children when they are pursued in a time appropriate and age appropriate way. In fact, children may receive the most developmental benefits from extracurricular activities when they participate in a diverse range of activities that fit comfortably in the child’s schedule instead of focusing intensely on one type of activity. This protects children from activity ‘burnout,’ and can help reduce unnecessary physical and emotional stress.2 The American Academy of Pediatrics particularly emphasizes the importance of children engaging in different types of sports to develop a wide range of skills.5 Nationally, more children participate in sports activities than other types of extracurriculars.3
When talking to parents about children’s sports, try offering these tips to help parents decide if their child is engaging in the right type of activity and whether it is developmentally friendly for their child’s age and abilities:
- Does the child enjoy participating in the sport? Most children, 70%, drop out of sports by the time they are 13 because they no longer find the activity fun due to the intensity of practice and lifestyle changes required for participation.
- Make sure the child receives positive coaching that promotes their enjoyment of sports while teaching team work and fair play. 6
- The sport level should be appropriate for the child’s age and abilities. For example, have restrictions on the number of pitches a child can throw in a baseball game or set a ratio for the number of practices to games.
- The child’s coach should have knowledge about the proper training techniques, equipment needed for participation, and physical and emotional needs of the children participating.
- Coaches should strive to prevent overuse injuries and recognize injuries early.
- Children should never try to ‘work through’ injuries.
Diversity in extracurricular activities can also benefit children who are not in athletics, as these provide time to socialize with peers and continue building other important skills. With the right mix of activity and an appropriate time commitment, extracurriculars can help children perform better academically and identify with their school, thereby cultivating a more positive school experience.7
Sometimes, parents may be concerned about their child participating in too many activities outside of school. Diversity in extracurricular activities promotes development as long as the child balances activities with the demands of school and family life. Parents can gather tips for choosing activities for their child on the Pathways.org website. Healthcare providers can discuss with parents about the appropriate amount of activity for their child to facilitate a healthy lifestyle. They can also express the importance of children having time for free play while limiting the use of electronic devices to less than 2 hours a day. Playtime is a great way for families to connect and share quality time together amongst busy schedules and an abundance activity options.
 Student Behaviors and After School Activities. National Center for Education Statistics. www.nces.ed.gov. Accessed 27 Apr 2016.
 Kremer-Sadlik T, Izquierdo C, Fatigante M. Making Meaning of Everyday Practices: Parents’ Attitudes toward Children’s Extracurricular Activities in the United States and Italy. Anthropology & Education Quarterly. 2010; 41(1): 35-54.
 Children’s Extracurricular Activities. Pew Research Center. 17 Dec 2015. www.pewsocialtrends.org.
 Ginsburg, Kenneth R. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics. Jan 2007: 182.
 Intensive Training and Sports Specialization in Young Athletes. Pediatrics. July 2000; 106(1): 154-157.
 Hallett, Vicky. A new study about what makes sports fun for kids finds that winning isn’t everything. The Washington Post. 22 July 2014. www.washingtonpost.com.
 Gilman, Rich. The Relationship Between Life Satisfaction, Social Interest, and Frequency of Extracurricular Activities Among Adolescent Students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. Dec 2001; 30(6): 749-767.