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Extracurricular Activities for Kids: Essential or Not?

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Updated on Apr 15, 2013

Nobody would deny that reading, writing and arithmetic form a key foundation for learning, but should science and sports be so swiftly sidelined?

In ever increasing numbers, schools are cutting back on the extras—subjects like physical education, arts, and science—to fit in more of the basics. In a 2007 study, the Center on Education Policy found that the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 led to an increase in the amount of reading and math performed in schools—to the detriment of other subjects like music and art.

Parent Power

It’s up to you to get involved, because this trend shows no signs of stopping. In fact, a follow-up study in 2008 revealed average cuts of 2.5 hours a week in instructional time spent on supplemental subjects. But how can you make a change?

  • Act as an advocate. Attend meetings, coffee mornings with the principal, and respond to school surveys. Send letters and emails to highlight your concerns, and find like-minded parents who will champion the cause. Remember it’s not just the arts that are suffering—half of high school students in a nationwide survey by the Center for Disease Control said they had no physical education in an average week, and only 20 percent of elementary schools in San Francisco were meeting state requirements—a minimal 20 minutes per day, according to researchers at UC San Francisco.
  • Prioritize a PTA budget. The parent teacher association will often fund activities and extras that school budgets can’t stretch to accommodate. Bring issues to the board, or become a board member yourself to have voting rights on PTA projects. Suggest sponsorship for school sports, or ask that art activities—like the national PTA “Reflections” program—become a PTA priority.
  • Find fun fundamentals. Many outside organizations would love to use school facilities for an after-school activity like science club or robotics. Approach organizations that provide after school activities in your area to request representation at your school. Talk to school officials about securing a room, advertise the activity with sent-home flyers, and choose a convenient time of day to meet. Like-minded parents won’t mind shelling out funds for engaging supplemental lessons.
  • Volunteer. Provide an activity open to everyone by sharing your time and effort. Coordinate an after-school running club, chess club or other activity with minimal start-up costs and equipment. Recruit fellow parents to help you run the program, and start simple. Even something as easy as running laps around the field for mileage tokens can be an effective way to kick-start physical activity. Nobody is too young to participate—in fact, the earlier kids get involved in sports the better,. A 2008 study by Trudeau and Shepard found that increasing physical education in primary schools actually increased academic performance.

Additional Activities

Unfortunately, parents won’t always have input about school subjects—particularly in the public school setting. If your efforts haven’t helped, Trudeau suggests giving your kid a choice of sports to tackle outside of school hours. When you’re checking out options, keep a few factors in mind to help you make a selection that’s right for your child.

  • First impressions. Are the facilities clean and safe? Is the staff friendly and welcoming? Do the other participants seem happy, interested and engaged? First impressions count—and you can tell a lot from observing a class in action. 
  • Commitments. While your kid can sample some activities and soon decide they’re not for her, other extracurricular activities demand a longer commitment. Whether it’s a travel team, mandatory practice sessions or a required recital, your child needs to know that if she signs up, she has to see it through. In fact, according to figure skating coach and author Xan Nelson, (xan-boni.blogspot.com), many elite teams require a contract and payments you won’t get back if you quit. Be sure your little one understands her obligations before you sign on the dotted line.
  • Overscheduling. Choose one or two sports for your elementary-grade kid to tackle over a litany of afterschool events. At this age, she’ll likely be just as active at a park play date as she would be in an organized activity. In the later years, homework starts to become more intensive, so you’ll need to make sure you leave enough time for schoolwork and downtime as well as extracurricular activities. If your child is noticeably sleepy during the day, or her grades are slipping, it could be a sign that she has too many obligations.
  • Double the benefits. If your child is struggling with certain subjects, her extracurriculars might actually lend a helping hand. Reluctant mathematicians may find music instruction beneficial, since it’s been shown to develop spatial reasoning and spatial-temporal awareness. A UCLA study found that dance and drama—particularly the interpretation and reenactment of stories—helped improve children’s reading comprehension and writing abilities. Anything artistic fosters creative, flexible thinking that translates into other areas of academic ability and problem solving.

Ask your child what activities interest her, and get recommendations from other parents. Sometimes, an activity will be more appealing simply because her friends are already involved. As she grows, picking, sticking with, and putting effort into an extracurricular becomes more important. Right now, there’s no harm in trying out several so your child can decide what is most important to her. After all, if she’s enthusiastic, she’ll be more likely to keep it up—and reap the benefits.

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