Ballet. Reading enrichment. Soccer. Gymnastics. Hockey. Baseball. Book clubs for kids. Music lessons. Art class. Special interest groups.
The list of extracurricular school activities and after-school activities for kids is seemingly endless. In a world that seems so competitive, and a culture that encourages parents endlessly to enrich their kids, it's easy to get over-scheduled or scheduled into activities that become a battleground between parents and children. It brings up tough topics such as quitting, budgeting, winning, losing, playing for yourself versus playing for the team, and so forth.
While it seems like you need to give your child every possible advantage, it's not always possible, or even necessarily best—especially for very young children. Kids can learn many good lessons in after-school activities, but there are other, simpler ways you can achieve what you want and keep life manageable.
Keep after-school activities age appropriate
Until kids reach nine or ten, they don't have much of an idea of what activities they'll like. Parents of preschoolers can probably all relate to the hot-cold attitude young children have. My four-year-old, for example, varies from loving ballet class to fighting attending. Dance class is expensive, so we tried it for the half-year instead of the whole year. She did enjoy it, but hasn't been keen to return. Instead, we got a few dance DVDs that we play with at home. That seems to be teaching her good lessons about dance, encouraging coordinated movement, and entertaining her happily. Plus, I'm not stuck to a schedule or chauffeuring, and we're saving several hundred dollars a month.
Try out after-school activities before committing
Considering most young children don't know whether they will or won't like an activity, or run hot-cold on it, see what you can do to try it out. Many after-school activities offer trial periods. Ask to visit a class or two for a try, or see if they have a week-long "camp" that you can try. Although these are usually in the summer, fall is also a good time to try things out before classes are full, when the dance schools and karate dojos are still recruiting students.
Set limits for after-school activities that work for your family
Each family has to know how much they and their child can manage above and beyond the normal daily schedule. My kids need a solid amount of downtime after their day at school. We limit our weeks to no more than two after-school activities. With my work load and my kids' need for downtime, that works best for us. It takes a little trial-error-tweaking, but each family can get there. And be honest with yourself! Don't get ruled by some notion that a particular activity is a must or the idea that other parents do and so you must too. I think we were the only family that opted out of our neighborhood swim team, but with daily practices and all-day competitions every weekend, it was too much for our family. My kids did attend a few swim meets and practices, and enjoyed cheering their friends. They were involved without our family being overwhelmed.
Consider a healthy mix of after-school activities
We like to select one activity that is active and one that is enriching. While these are subjective terms to us, basically we're saying we want a reasonable difference between activities. This has meant soccer and art, or ballet and Girl Scouts, and so forth for us. This past spring, our daughters both took ballet class, my older daughter had her Girl Scouts group, and we mixed in other fun things at home. One week we did baking, one week we did some interesting art projects, another week we did science projects, and another week (tadpole season) we did natural science (with help from an expert neighbor). If you keep it open, you can let kids' interests guide you and find (for free!) good things to do right at home.
Physical activity isn't dependent on organized after-school activities
Many parents enroll kids in sports to help them learn about team work and to get physical activity. We've had a challenge finding the right sport and team for us, so this year we're considering making sports a special family activity instead. We've begun taking nightly walks after dinner. It's a good way to exercise everyone in the family, including the dog, and I've found it's an amazing way to talk with the children.
Get organized for organized after-school activities
When you do sign up for an activity, it can be a challenge to coordinate it with your daily schedule. That means getting prepared and organized. Keep a wall calendar—any sort—in a central location, and implement a family habit of checking in with the calendar daily. This is the best way to keep everyone organized for after-school activities. Also, I tend to pack extra snack in the lunch kit on those "straight to" (going straight to an activity from school) days. We keep packed activity bags for each activity we're signed up for, so those are easy, at-the-ready, grab-and-go things kept right by the front door.
When it comes to after-school activities, to thine own self be true
The key is to be guided by what you can do and what your kids can do, considering your money and time budget as well as your energy. It's easy as a parent to fall into listening to other voices, especially when they are more seasoned or trusted and seem to be telling us what we should do to provide the best for our kids. We all want the very best for our kids, and sometimes that's a simpler schedule.
Resources for do-it-yourself after school activities
How Stuff Works: This web site is great, and they offer a wonderful after-school activities page. My kids know how every appliance and convenience in our home works courtesy of this site (the how plumbing and toilets work with little demonstration movie remains a perennial favorite -- I think I've watched it a hundred times or more), and we have learned so much about the things in our world. It's a great (and free! at home!) resource.
Science experiments for preschoolers: Fun things you and your child can do at home to learn about basic science using things you already have on hand!
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