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How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for Your Child

How to Choose the Right Extracurriculars for Your Child

Scheduling after-school activities for your children can make your head spin—and now it’s even more confusing with pandemic pressures and restrictions. Experts weigh in to help you figure it out.

There is a dizzying array of options for kids’ extracurriculars, from academic enrichment to sports teams to social interest programs. It’s difficult to figure out the right fit for children in a non-pandemic world—add COVID-19 to the mix and the decisions are overwhelming. Safety risks and physical restrictions make the arena of after-school a whole new ballgame. So how can parents make the right after-school choices? We asked local experts to share their tips.

The Benefits of Getting Involved 

While it might seem easier to forgo the extracurriculars right now, they are more important than ever. After sitting in front of the computer all day, kids need opportunities to move around, according to Kelly Fradin, M.D., a pediatrician in the Bronx. Megan Gallagher, a TED talk speaker, best-selling author, and mental health advocate for teenagers, agrees that the best activities are ones where they are active. “Just getting fresh air and moving their bodies is so good for them,” she says. 

As kids spend more time alone, non-screen-based programming is a good way for them to socialize out of the house. “If a child has been lonely, isolated, or sad, finding opportunities for interaction and play with other children in as safe an environment as possible may be helpful,” Dr. Fradin says. 

Extracurriculars can also increase positive feelings of accomplishment—which can be in short supply during remote learning. “By doing the recital and being part of it, they experience a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem,” says Nancy Solomon, owner of Studio B Dance Center in Eastchester. “It also teaches them listening skills and respecting adults…independence, how to make friends, how to share,” she adds.

“After-school activities provide an ideal environment in which to nurture social skills and confidence,” says Shawna Stewart, program accounts specialist at  MakerState LLC, a STEM enrichment program in Manhattan. “They teach children the value of working as a team to achieve a mutual goal—a skill that will benefit them in their future occupations.”

How to Find What Your Kid Loves

You want to start her early enough that she has a chance to excel, but also make sure that she’s old enough to really dig in. What age is right? “Any child who goes to school is old enough to begin after-school activities,” says Carole Lieberman, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror. “[Kids] should begin by grades first, second, or third because the sooner you start enriching them with these activities, the better.”

On the other hand, if your kid is not interested in after-school classes, or the pandemic is preventing him from engaging in what he loves, rest assured. There’s plenty of time for interests to develop. “By middle school, if not before, students should be experimenting with a diverse set of after-school endeavors that align with any interests they express,” says Kat Cohen, Ph.D., college admissions counselor and founder of IvyWise, an educational consulting company.

When it comes to selecting an activity, Dr. Cohen says it’s important to provide a variety of options. For younger kids, a ranking system can help. Make a list of activities your child enjoys that are safe enough to explore, Dr. Lieberman recommends. “Then ask your child to rank them in the order they like best, so that they feel like they have chosen to do this,” she says.

Safety of Activities During COVID-19

The pandemic has made logistics a major factor in choosing activities. In addition to distance, time commitment, cost of equipment, and more, parents now have to consider how safe the activity is in terms of COVID-19. 

Dr. Fradin recommends “activities that can be done outdoors, six feet apart, masked, or with a small, stable pod.” She also says, “the same precautions being taken in schools should be considered for after-school activities, specifically sanitizing, screening, masking, and cohorting.” She urges parents to keep the same children together rather than mixing groups. 

“I would also encourage parents to think through the entirety of the activity including logistics for commuting to the activity,” she says. “We have to protect parents who may be more exposed in some activities (i.e. helping a child change in a crowded locker room) or doing drop off or pickup.”

How to Figure Out a Workable Schedule

Figuring out your kid’s individual threshold can be tricky. “Start with one after-school activity, then gradually add more as your child seems able to handle a more intense schedule,” Dr. Lieberman suggests. It's important to make sure your kids don’t lose sight of the things that may be important to your family—academics, family dinners, religious practices, etc. Also, siblings may differ in their activity level. “Every student is different, so there is no magic number of hours that should be devoted to after-school activities,” Dr. Cohen says. 

During this difficult time, Dr. Fradin encourages parents to focus on activities that will make life easier and more enjoyable. “While we normally may choose activities with enrichment or skill development in mind, for now activities that will be restorative may be more important.” 

Gallagher agrees that during this emotionally challenging time, it’s important that your child feels safe and happy within the program. “Use your intuition to really understand your child's interests and favorite hobbies,” she says. “As a parent, the best thing you can do is to be present and show up. As well as asking them, ‘How are you feeling?’ instead of ‘How are you doing?’”

Finally, parents might also need to prioritize their own needs, Dr. Fradin says. “Knowing how much parents are struggling right now, I'd encourage parents to think of themselves too. If doing more activities will be more work for the parent, maybe it's not worth it right now.”


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