It's a common quandary: What's the best after-school activity for my child? How do I find a good program? Read on for the answers you need to get started.
How to Find Activities
Start your search at your child's school. Ask his teacher or the principal what options are available there. It's also important to talk to other parents about what their children are involved in and get recommendations for kid-tested classes and activities.
Also check out community resources such as:
- Community and recreation centers
- Places of worship
- Museums and libraries
- The YMCA
- Boys & Girls Club of America
- The 4-H
- Police Athletic Leagues
- Girls, Inc.
How to Choose
After you have an idea of the possibilities, talk with your child about what he's interested in. Give him some options that complement his interests — an artistic child might enjoy a ceramics class, while a boisterous one can work off energy dancing or playing a vigorous sport. But don't overlook what might seem like unlikely matches. Shy children often enjoy expressing themselves on stage in a drama class; fidgeters can find a way to focus through martial arts.
Once you've narrowed down the options, visit them while they are in session so you can get a real idea about the environment, the staff, and the program.
When you visit, look for:
- At least one adult for every 12 children — in younger groups, the ratio should be closer to one to 10
- Whether there any "hidden" costs, such as for uniforms, costumes, or equipment
- Friendly, enthusiastic staff. Are they certified or otherwise expert in their field? Feel free to ask for references and check them.
- A space clean, safe, and spacious enough for the activity. Is there enough equipment and other resources for everyone?
- A calm, but energized environment. Does the activity appear well organized and supervised?
- Happy, enthusiastic kids
Grade-by-Grade at a Glance
Wondering how many days a week your 2nd grader should be practicing the guitar? Searching for good ideas for after-school programs for your 10 year old? Use the following guidelines to steer your decisions — but remember that you know your child's maturity and temperament best.
Keep your kindergartener's after-school life simple and free — one or two after-school activities a week are more than enough. Wait until he's adjusted to the daily school routine. Then find an extracurricular that involves his creative and/or physical side, such as an art, dance, or music program.
- Grade 1
Balance your 1st grader's schedule with play dates, playground visits, and one or two days of an after-school activity per week. Best bets are noncompetitive sports and other physical activities since this is around the age when your child is starting to get a grip on the abilities of her own body. Plus, after being in school all day, she needs an outlet to play and run.
- Grade 2
Get your child involved in choosing extracurriculars. He'll probably tell you what he'd like to do anyway! Steer him towards activities that he likes and doesn't get to do at school, whether it's sports such as swimming or skating, computers, or art or music lessons. Many kids start learning piano or violin around this age. Make sure your child has at least one or two days free a week for alone time, which he is starting to need to unwind.
- Grade 3
After sitting all day in a classroom, your 3rd grader needs to move and socialize after school. Team sports are a great choice — now she's old enough to remember and follow rules and can handle losing (though she's still not ready for anything ultra-competitive). Other good choices are activities that use and develop fine motor skills, such as painting, sewing, or learning to play an instrument.
- Grade 4
Try to get your 4th grader involved in one or two extracurricular activities that he is good at and loves doing. It will build confidence and help him manage stress, which is key at this age when cliques and social pressure in school are beginning to build. Another thing that's growing is his pile of homework, so make sure he has adequate time to complete his work without having to stay up late. Set limits on seeing friends and activities if he is often crabby and irritable, if his grades drop, if he has trouble sleeping or complains of mysterious illnesses, or if he shows other signs of stress like overeating.
- Grade 5
Over-scheduling is a problem you and your child will probably face this year. Your 5th grader is full of energy for everything and wants to spend all her time participating in activities and hanging out with friends. To ensure she's completing her schoolwork and not becoming burnt out, you should make sure she has two free afternoons a week. While you're at it, block out a once-a-week family time that you and your child stick to so she remembers that family is a priority.
- Middle School
Try to steer your middle schooler toward activities that reinforce learning and get him away from the TV. On average, middle schoolers spend an equal amount of time every week watching TV and socializing with friends — about 20-25 hours apiece. To improve academic performance, encourage your preteen to spend time volunteering, to join school clubs like band, chess, or foreign language clubs, or to sign up for extracurriculars with a leadership element, such as the school newspaper or student council. It will help him feel more connected to the school community while forging friendships based in common interests and experiences. As always, keep an eye out for signs that he is overextending himself with after-school commitments. As a general rule, he should be spending fewer than 20 hours a week participating in after-school activities.