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A Parent’s Guide to Choosing After-School Activities

Choosing the most fun, safe, and fruitful way for your kids to spend their after-hours.

Schools are, by and large, providing less after-school activities for kids to partake in when the final bell rings, putting more of the onus on you to keep your kids occupied after school. You might need a little guidance when it comes to picking the right activity for your kids, and we’re here to help. We polled a couple experts on how to choose where your kids spend their precious hours after school.

Make Sure It Works For You

Your natural inclination might be to just go with whatever your kid wants, when they want. But that’ll just drive you crazy. “It has to work with the parent’s work schedule and with the siblings,” says Meghan Leahy, parenting coach and Washington Post columnist. “Unless your kid is freaking the next Pelé or something, I don’t believe in making yourself into a pretzel. It’s a disservice to the family and to your child.” Look for activities that work for your kids, obviously, but make sure you have the time — and the sanity — to get them there.

It’s Okay If It’s the Opposite of What They Did Last Year

You might be frustrated with a kid who can’t stick to one activity, year after year. After all, don’t they want to get better? Actually, no, not really. “Their interests will vary from year to year and perhaps even moment to moment,” says parenting coach Cara Pollard. “It’s ok for them to change their mind and it’s healthy to try new things. Always keep your child’s personality at the forefront of your mind when deciding what to register for and incorporate variety in the programs.” That means that even if ballet was all the rage last year for them, this year it could be dodgeball. And that’s okay.

Soccer’s Not A Bad Place to Start
Kids, especially younger ones, need space to run around outside on a small budget. Basically, they need kiddie league soccer. “Soccer’s great because it’s outdoors and it’s truly a team sport,” says Leahy. “Plus, there’s a lot of little players on the field, and you get changed around to a lot of positions if the coach is good.” Soccer is a great, low-budget activity to start a kid off with.

But Some Kids Need Individual Sports

A kid who shuts down in social situations is a bit of a challenge. They might rather sit on the soccer field than try to find the ball. For them, try swimming. “If they’re shy and sporty, swimming is great, because you don’t actually have to talk to anyone to swim,” says Leahy. The same goes for tennis or running. “Cross country is a king of sports for weirdo kids,” she says. “I loved cross country. Again, you’re on a team, but you’re on your own.” Just because your kid is shy doesn’t mean they have to tone down their sporty energy.

Don’t Overschedule

Just like you need to make sure the activity works with your schedule, you need to make sure that you actually see your kids after school. It can be tempting to dump them in music class and pick them up right before dinner, but your kids still need a connection with you. “Do not over-schedule them, and be sure to prioritize family connection time,” says Pollard. “It’s the most vital time you have together.” That means keeping activities to two or three times a week after school. “Kids are in far more school than they ever have been,” says Leahy. “If there’s a lot of things to balance and nobody will get it right.”

Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Often the best way to determine the activity your kids will love is by leaning on other parents. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find great activities. “Almost every parent will tell you that it’s word of mouth,” says Leahy. “Parents just stand around and say, ‘Oh, little Ralphie’s going to golf lessons.’ ‘Oh, where do you go?’ There’s no greater trust in a community than when they community uses it.” If your kid has a good friend, just ask his or her parents about what’s good in the hood.

Dabble in All the Arts

Even if your little man wants to be a painter, he should still learn to make use of papier-mâché — and his mind. “Look for classes that offer process art for the youngest children,” says Pollard. “Children need to use their imagination to create. Giving them predetermined supplies and instructions doesn’t foster creativity. Let them be free to touch, feel, use supplies in ways that appeal to them.” So instead of sculpture or piano, start with Art 101- or Music 101-type classes and activities. The kid will be free to explore and find what he likes.

Stick Around for the First Session

Safety is always the top priority. “It’s always best to register for as many after-school activities at the child’s school as possible,” says Pollard because this is an environment you know is safe. So if you’re registering them for something outside the school ecosystem, don’t just drive off. Hang around, watch, and make sure it’s a place you can trust. “I’ve always signed them up and I just go and stand there and see how my intuition feels,” says Leahy. “Are they watching the kids? Are people taking care of this? Does this feel safe?” A little Googling and contacting the Better Business Bureau can also go a long way.

Quitters Welcome

We’re taught that quitting is for losers. Well, when you’re a kid, that simply isn’t true. “The point of childhood is to be open and trying things,” says Leahy. “Instead of seeing after-school activities as just growth opportunities, see it as something that’s good to try.” If your kid isn’t destined for the gridiron after a couple weeks of peewee football, they’ll likely tell you, and it’s okay to pull them out. They gave it a shot. As parents, you have to remember that it’s okay for your kids to quit.