How to Choose After-School Activities

Find the right extracurricular fit for your child's interests.


When Sara Nash was looking for an after-school activity for her 12-year-old daughter Trystan, the Oreland, PA mom thought fencing would be perfect. “My daughter started making some really violent drawings and I thought, ‘There’s some aggression here that could stand to be channeled,’ ” Nash recalls. That was a year ago, and today Trystan (pictured here) loves fencing — and the way it challenges her both mentally and physically.

With literally hundreds of extracurricular activities to choose from, finding the right fit can be a daunting task. Is your child sports-oriented, dramatic, creative, a deep thinker, outdoorsy? Once you’ve hit upon an area of interest, you’ve got more choices to make: Would your athlete prefer golf or ice hockey, your musician bassoon or bass guitar, your artist sculpture or still life?

A World of Choices
Extracurriculars are offered through community and private outlets. Local recreational programs are a good way to introduce a child to an activity, often in a less competitive (and less expensive) environment. “These programs tend to be more casual for keeping kids active,” says Selznick. “Once the child is ready to commit to a specific activity, parents may want to investigate more private, focused programs.”

Another benefit of branching off into private programs: “You’re likely to find better instruction, because you get teachers whose full-time jobs are teaching their skill,” says Thomas.

For very young kids, consider life skills classes, such as swimming. Take advantage of Mommy and Me classes where you can bond with your child and meet other families. Once your child reaches school age, community recreation leagues cover everything from soccer and martial arts to theater and music to self-help skills such as study habits.

Think outside the box. Explore volunteering at an animal shelter, clowning around at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, taking a role-play class at a local theater, creating jewelry or clothing at a neighborhood crafts store or transforming into a pirate during a bookseller’s story hour.

Richard Selznick, director of the Cooper Learning Center in Voorhees, NJ encourages parents to “give young kids a smorgasbord of different activities to expose them to different things. Once they turn 10, around fifth grade, they are best prepared from a developmental point of view to specialize on a specific activity.”

Extracurricular benefits

According to KidsHealth from Nemours Center for Children's Health in Wilmington, DE children who are involved in after-school activities have better school attendance and higher grades. Because attendance cuts down on unstructured, unsupervised time, kids who partake in extracurriculars are less likely to struggle with drugs, alcohol and cigarette abuse.

Furthermore, slipping after-school classes into busy family schedules teaches kids time management and how to juggle priorities. Many activities also expose children to competition and managing emotions about winning and losing. “It’s a time when kids learn skills they need for coping with the real world,” says Kate Thomas, owner of Delaware Valley Fencers Club in West Conshohocken, PA.

Class considerations

  • Keep age and stage in mind, says Selznick. Don’t put too much pressure on young kids to perform; just let them have fun.
  • Select a class that jibes with your child’s interests, not yours. Selznick suggests using pictures to represent activity categories and letting your child rank them in order of interest.
  • Audit a class. “There’s no substitute for going to see how the teachers interact with the kids and if the kids are having fun,” says Thomas.
  • Do your due diligence. “Accreditations help to provide credibility,” says Cheri Astolfi, dean of The Music School of Delaware.
  • Get reviews from friends and neighbors on specific activities, venues and staff.
  • Don’t underestimate the “cool factor.” Can they play the role of rock star or filmmaker? “The most attractive part of fencing is that there are swords; kids get really excited about that,” says Thomas.
  • Many activities offer need and merit-based scholarships or work-study opportunities. Inquire about these if finances are an issue.
Categories: Classes, Education Features