Find the Best Extracurricular Activity for Your Child or Teen

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Between school and downtime, most kids try one or more extracurricular activities. These classes and programs allow children and teens to pursue a special interest that's outside of the typical educational curriculum, including sports, the arts, special-interest clubs, and technology.

If you have a busy family schedule already, you may wonder whether extracurricular activities are worth the time and money. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that enrichment programs outside the classroom boost children's social and academic skills. Luckily, there are more choices than ever for kids to find a pursuit that may ignite a true passion.

Benefits of Extracurricular Activities

Depending on whether the program you're considering for your child is physical, intellectual, or creative in nature, specific extracurricular activities can build skills in different developmental areas. However, research has shown that extracurricular activities in general can:

  • Offer kids the opportunity to develop closer friends than they might make in school, due to shared interests
  • Build teamwork and problem-solving skills
  • Help children develop emotional regulation that carries over to the classroom
  • Encourage superior academic performance
  • Enhance a high schooler's college application portfolio

Types of Extracurricular Activities

You might be surprised to learn how many different types of extracurricular activities there are to choose from in schools and communities. With options ranging from hobby-based clubs to year-round competitive programs, you can find a program for almost any type of child. Here is just a sampling of what organized activities may be offered near you.

Sports

Sports are the most common extracurricular activity for kids in the United States. Swimming lessons, ice skating lessons, and soccer clinics are typically offered to children as early as the toddler and preschool years. Many town recreation departments offer baseball, softball, basketball, lacrosse, hockey, tennis, and volleyball to elementary-school-age kids. As they age out of youth leagues, many kids can join middle school or high school sports teams or try out for a competitive travel sports team.

Rest assured, if your child doesn't seem to enjoy or thrive in mainstream sports like these, there are a growing number of alternative physical activity programs to keep them active. Ask your child's P.E. teacher or local recreation department if they know of any martial arts, golf, skiing, BMX biking, or rock climbing clinics or clubs in your area.

Youth sports participation is linked to a greater sense of belonging in the school and community and closer social ties among students as well as their parents.

Scouting

Scouting groups are a great choice for kids who enjoy nature and are willing to try a variety of activities. Scouts learn basic outdoor survival skills, but are also expected to earn badges in other skills like cooking, cleaning, arts, finances, goal setting, and personal care.

Historically, there have been Boy Scout troops and Girl Scout troops, but those distinctions are no longer based on traditional gender norms. The organization formerly known as Boy Scouts is now Scouts BSA, and it welcomes girls as well as boys. Girl Scouts still only accepts girls into its ranks, but in consideration of transgender youth specifies that: "If a child is recognized by the family and school/community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, then Girl Scouts is an organization that can serve her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe."

Performing Arts

Theater and dance are popular extracurricular activities found in almost every community. Many schools put on plays and other performances that students can sign up or try out for. Other students who enjoy stagecraft but not performing may help build sets or make costumes. 

Some kids who excel in performing arts may grow up to be professional actors, comedians, or other performers, but many more will build self-confidence, develop friendships, and go on to participate in community theater or similar groups as they become adults.

Visual Arts

With many schools shortening or limiting their special subject classes, kids who like to draw, paint, or create might benefit from joining an art program to learn technique and see their creativity flourish. Check with your child's art teacher or a local art supplies store for classes and camps; some cater to very specific artistic interests, like pottery or graphic design. Many art museums host workshops for children, too.

Music

Band and choir are popular elective courses in many schools. Children can also get private lessons or join a community youth orchestra or other music groups. Educational research suggests that kids who play musical instruments do better in academic school subjects. However, learning to play and appreciate music alone is a fantastic reward in itself.

Community Service

Service organizations are great for teaching children about social and humanitarian issues. Older kids and teens often gain leadership skills and make important personal connections. Middle school and high school honor societies often require students to perform a certain number of hours of community service, which demonstrates the important role that schools feel this pursuit plays in individual character development.

Churches, synagogues, temples, and junior versions of groups like Kiwanis and Lions offer community service opportunities for kids. Individual schools often have community service clubs that provide local outreach, whether it's making no-sew blankets or collecting food pantry items.

Studies show that students who participate in service-learning experiences that allow them to engage with the community and provide time for reflection are more likely to score better on standardized tests and be more motivated to do well in school.

Academic Clubs (Math, Chess, Debate, and Model U.N.) 

Clubs or competitive teams often form around academic subjects. Intellectually curious kids might enjoy more deeply exploring topics they first learn about in the classroom. Some academic clubs that schools tend to offer include:

  • Math clubs: These include Math Counts or Mathletes.
  • Chess: Clubs might play just for fun, like during lunchtime, or guide kids toward the local competition circuit.
  • Debate: Debate clubs commonly compete against nearby schools.
  • Model U.N.: These programs that allow children to explore global issues with classmates and peers from other schools.

Student Government 

Student government normally is available from upper elementary grades through college. Kids who are elected to student council are empowered to make decisions about important events for the student body and occasionally weigh in on school policy decisions. If your child has shown interest in leadership or politics, they should consider exploring student government groups at their school.

Student Media 

Many schools have student newspapers, literary magazines, yearbooks, video or audio school newscasts, film clubs, student-created websites, and more. Digging into these subjects will help familiarize kids with new technology and can create a portfolio for future jobs and college applications.

Affinity Groups

Affinity groups allow kids to gather and connect with other kids who share a similar—often marginalized—identity. High schools and even some elementary and middle schools offer clubs or groups for kids who identify as LGBTQ, persons of color, Latinx, and more. These groups can create a safe space for your child, a collective voice for their concerns, and service-related opportunities that might help them connect with the broader community.

STEM Programs

Programs based in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) are a natural fit for children who like to tinker or play on computers or tablets. Some schools offer science, computer, or engineering clubs, and more and more programs are cropping up to cater to kids' STEM interests. LEGO-based robotics, coding, and video game development are just a few examples of programs being offered in certain locales across the country.

STEM programs are a smart choice to keep kids busy when transportation is tricky, since an increasing number are available online. Companies like Outschool allow parents to sign up for fun virtual kids' classes that focus on science and technology.

How to Choose an Extracurricular

How much you guide your child toward a certain activity will depend on your child's age. If you have a younger child, you may need to provide a lot of direction to find the right activity. For a high schooler, you may just want to suggest a few different possibilities and let them find an activity that sounds interesting or fun. 

If your school-age student's school doesn't offer a particular extracurricular activity, find out from their school's administration what is needed to start a club. With enough student interest and at least one adult who can volunteer their time to help supervise, your child could be a trailblazer for other kids who share their passion.

You can also look for activities sponsored by organizations in the local community. Local newspapers, bulletin boards, and social or online media often include advertisements for programs for school-age children and teens. For low-cost or free extracurricular activity options, look to your town's recreation department or public library.

Just be careful to not overschedule your child with extracurricular activities. Many child health experts encourage parents to make sure children have at least one day a week without an organized extracurricular activity so they can have free time to relax and recharge.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do colleges look for in extracurricular activities?

Extracurricular activities that promote intellectual curiosity, creativity, compassion, and a strong work ethic tend to impress college admissions officers. Look into debate or chess clubs, visual or performing art workshops, community outreach or volunteering opportunities, or even after-school jobs.

How do extracurricular activities help students?

By doing extracurricular activities, a child can expand their social circle, develop new skills, and become better problem solvers. Research shows that kids who do extracurricular activities tend to do better in the classroom, too.

What are examples of extracurricular activities?

Extracurricular activity options run the gamut for today's kids and teens. Popular activities include sports, scouts, art, theater, music, and community service. Many children also join school-affiliated organizations like student council, competitive academic clubs (like Model U.N. or math club), and affinity groups that help connect kids with shared identities.

How many after-school activities is too many?

There is no set limit to after-school activities that suits all kids, as some children thrive with a busier schedule and others need more downtime. However, it's a good rule of thumb to cut back on extracurriculars if your child is having trouble getting homework done, can't get at least eight hours of sleep per night, or is struggling to maintain connections with family and friends.

A Word From Verywell

By expanding your child's skillset and social circle, extracurricular activities can be an investment in your child's future. Along with helping your child establish a growth mindset through teamwork and problem-solving challenges, pursuing interests outside of the academic curriculum may help teach your child how to establish a better work-life balance when they become adults.

The trick is figuring out which classes and programs are a good fit, so talking to your child's teachers, fellow parents, and community organizers about local options is key. Above all, keep an open mind, and don't be afraid to let your kids try new things. A child or teen who may lack or lose interest in one activity might find their true calling in another.

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