Why Enroll Your Child in After-School Activities?

By Nancy L. Deutsch, Ph.D.

Deutsch is an associate professor of Research, Statistics & Evaluation and Applied Developmental Science at UVA and is an affiliated faculty member with Youth-Nex. Her research examines the socio-ecological contexts of adolescent development, particularly issues related to identity. She has focused on the role of after-school programs and relationships with important adults.

This blog was originally published at www.infoaboutkids.org, as “After-school activities: Why are they important and what should you look for?”

As the school year begins, many parents are thinking not only about what classes their children will take in school, but also what their kids will do after school. After-school activities offer opportunities for kids to learn new skills, explore different areas of talent, deepen existing expertise, get support for areas they aren’t as strong in, make friends, and form relationships with supportive adults. Participation in structured after-school activities has also been linked to a number of positive outcomes. For working parents, after-school activities are often more than a luxury, they are necessary child care in those gap hours when children are out of school but parents are still at work. Research shows that there are risks of kids being unsupervised after school, so after-school activities are an important resource to parents seeking to make sure their kids are in a safe and structured place once they leave their classrooms.

So what does the landscape of after-school activities look like and how should you choose the right one for your kid?

After-school activities range from extra-curricular activities (school-based clubs or teams), to comprehensive after-school programs (school or community-based), to private lessons, faith-based groups, and specialized tutoring or mentoring programs targeted towards specific needs. Programs differ in their costs and offerings. Whereas both of these factors are important for families, the aspect of programs that affects kids the most is their quality.

Research suggests that participation in structured after-school programs and activities can have benefits for kids, including social skills, emotional development, and academics. But the quality of and the child’s engagement in a program both influence the impact it will have.

High quality programs provide a safe space with supportive relationships, appropriate structure, and positive expectations for behavior. But beyond that they also provide opportunities for belonging and skill building and give youth a place to express themselves, take on responsibilities, and tackle challenging tasks. Researchers studying after-school programs focused on social and personal skills found that programs with four features, called the “SAFE” features, had an impact on both social-emotional and academic outcomes. These programs had a (S)equenced set of activities, emphasized (A)ctive learning, had a component that (F)ocused on building social and emotional skills, and communicated in an (E)xplicit way about the skills they were trying to develop in youth. Other researchers have found that programs that allow youth to actively shape activities and take on meaningful roles in “real world” projects (including artistic performances and other types of public presentations) provide opportunity for youth to develop important social, emotional, and cognitive skills. The adult staff in such programs play an important role in creating opportunities for learning, setting expectations, serving as role models, and providing useful feedback and scaffolding.

So can there be too much of a good thing?

About a decade ago, the notion of the “over-scheduled child” took hold. Some people argued that children are too scheduled during the after-school hours, leading to undue pressure on kids, with potentially negative outcomes. In reality, very few kids participate in extremely high levels of after-school activities. Overall, kids average about 5 hours per week of scheduled after-school activities, and about 40% of kids don’t participate in any organized after-school activities. There does not appear to be evidence that more activities, in and of themselves, have a negative impact on kids. But of course it is important to be sensitive to your kid’s needs.

Whereas parents in some communities may be concerned about over-scheduling, parents in other communities are struggling to find high quality programs for their kids. Youth from lower income households participate in out-of-school activities at lower rates than their higher income peers and there is substantial unmet demand for high quality programs, especially among lower income families.

So, what are some things to keep in mind as you try to find the right after-school activities for your kids?

  • Stay focused on what your child likes to do. It is fine to suggest trying new activities to expose your child to a variety of interests. But your child’s enthusiasm for the activity is also important. Even if it is necessary for your child to participate in after-school programming every day, talk to them about what types of activities they find most engaging.
  • The after-school hours can be a great time for kids to explore different talents. As many schools have faced cuts in enrichment programs, after-school activities can offer your child the chance to demonstrate talents and learn skills they may not get to in school. This can be important not only for developing new interests, but also for kids to experience competence in different areas.
  • Be sensitive to your kid’s needs. Although there is no evidence to suggest that more activities are bad for kids, if your child is expressing a dislike of particular activities or a desire to do less, talk to them about what is motivating those feelings. Think about how you might be able to balance their activities in a way that gives them opportunities to develop skills and participate in activities they enjoy while also having some time for play and socializing in safe and structured environments.
  • Look for programs that offer sequenced, active, focused and explicit activities in safe spaces where youth have opportunities to shape and take on meaningful roles in activities. All of these are program features that research has linked to positive learning experiences and outcomes for kids.
  • Pay attention to the adults. Relationships with caring adults are associated with positive outcomes for kids. High quality after-school activities can be environments where kids can form relationships with adults who can supplement the support that you give your child. And good adult leaders translate to better experiences for kids.
  • If you have a limited budget, look into local community-based organizations that offer sliding scale fees for families, and often waive fees altogether for families that need it.

Proper citation link for this blog post originally published on infoaboutkids.org:
Deutsch, N.L. (2016, September 07). After-school activities: Why are they important and what should you look for? Retrieved from http://infoaboutkids.org/blog/after-school-activities-why-are-they-important-and-what-should-they-look-like/