Involvement in extracurricular activities has become a rite of passage for children. Experts cite the benefits of an involved child, but others have started to identify increased stress from over scheduling. What is the good in these activities, and how do we balance them in order to avoid too much of a good thing?
A typical mother in a typical family, with two young children each in three extracurricular activities, will spend roughly six hours driving per week and, on a busy day, will not return home until 5:00 P.M. After that, it’s dinner, homework, and bedtime. If the kids are lucky, they’ll get some unstructured time to release their creative juices.
Scheduling everything is no easy task for the typical family; in fact, typical parents should probably have a naval degree for the tight ship they have to run.
With all this time being stolen from homework, free time, and—most importantly—family, one has to ask: Are extracurriculars worth the hassle? How much do they contribute to children’s development?
The Good in Extracurricular Activities
When extracurricular activities first became popular, in the early 1900s, parents, educators, and the general public thought that the activities were detrimental to study—that recreation would prevent students from doing well. But over the years, numerous studies have found significant beneficial relationships between extracurricular activities and academics, social skills, and psychological health.
In fact, studies have found that adolescents who participate in extracurricular activities—sports, arts, clubs, and others—have higher grades, higher academic aspirations, and better attitudes toward school and education. On a psychological level, they are more likely to have a positive self image, less inclined to depression, and less likely to have suicidal tendencies. Physically, they are more likely to get proper exercise and eat healthy—even if their extracurricular activity doesn’t include sports. And, according to researchers Patricia Harrison and Gopalakrishnan Narayan, they’re even more likely to drink milk.
Even young children benefit from participation in extracurricular activities: One study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education followed 15,688 children from kindergarten to fifth grade, and a positive correlation to reading, math, and general knowledge was found in children who participated in activities. The shift from no activities to one activity is pivotal in the advantage. (But keep in mind that each additional activity beyond one increased advantage only minimally, and leveled off at four.)
And there are more benefits. Adolescents who participate in extracurricular activities form pivotal social bonds with teammates and mentors, providing them with social and character skills, as well as social capital—networks that increase the likelihood of their success. “You get involved with groups of people that not only encourage you in those activities, but that also carries over into school,” says Kelly Troutman, BYU grad and co-author of a crucial study on the impact of extracurricular activities on female athletes. In fact, one study by the National Center for Education Statistics found participants in extracurricular activities were 20 percent more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree or higher.
This correlation is even stronger in women. Troutman’s study with BYU sociology professor Mikaela Dufur found that women who participated in high school sports were 41 percent more likely to graduate from college.
These beneficial activities do take time out of the home, but they can also be constructive for family relationships: siblings learn to support and respect one another, and entire families can strengthen bonds as they work and cheer together.
While extracurricular activities are generally connected with beneficial skills and achievements outside the activity, knowing that certain activities have particular benefits associated with them may help you and your child choose.
In 2002, researcher Beckett Broh found that intramural sports—those sports that are less competitive, require less commitment, or aren’t structured by an adult—are detrimental to academic success. However, this is certainly not true for interscholastic sports. “Which is funny because there is that stereotype of ‘dumb jock,’ but actually there’s this connection most people wouldn’t predict,” says Troutman. Broh actually concluded that participating in sports helped students more than any other activity, providing as much academic help as music and significantly more benefit to self-esteem. (In elementary school children, sports are secondary to the arts in aiding academic achievement.)
Music doesn’t correlate to self-esteem as strongly as interscholastic sports, but it does have strong academic, developmental, and social benefits. In fact, it is considered by experts as fundamental to math and language skills, providing a unique enhancement to those higher brain functions required for such subjects. And if your children enjoy music, it will be a boon to them for years to come: playing music soothes the mind, and even acts as a form of therapy.
Unlike athletics and music, other extracurricular activities have only a little academic benefit. However, clubs like drama, yearbook, and leadership allow students to develop a variety of skills. Drama would allow a child to become more comfortable in front of crowds, and yearbook or newspaper would provide some vocational experience; leadership would provide students with greater organizational skills, and the list goes on.
One activity that doesn’t receive due attention is volunteerism. Depending on the project, even young children can get involved, if supervised, and can build important character values like selflessness and hard work. When volunteer work exists in conjunction with a child’s academic subjects, it can even increase academic growth through “service learning.” Service is also considered a “prosocial” activity (along with church attendance) that has been found to correlate with good grades.
Many schools now have volunteer work required to complement the curriculum, but you can get your children involved yourself. Furthermore, many organizations allow for families to volunteer together, so while your children enjoy a new extracurricular activity, you can also enjoy family time with them. To get involved, look for an organization that is meaningful for your child or family—something as traditional as teaching literacy at the local library, or something unique like being water-givers at a local race. For more in-depth guidance, contact your city, go to Alliance Youth Services at ays.org (only for teens), or visit volunteermatch.org to contact Volunteer Match—the largest volunteer matching service out there.
Because choosing just one option may be difficult, it may be helpful to know that Harrison and Narayan revealed in 2003 that students who participated in sports and other activities had higher rates of positive behaviors and lower rates of negative behaviors when compared with students who participated in just sports, just activities, or nothing.
But what about our typical family? Can they (and their sanity) handle all this? Sure, extracurricular activities may be beneficial, but we all know you can have too much of a good thing.
“It goes back to balancing. You shouldn’t overdo it,” says Troutman, who has taken an interest in balancing her findings against family principles.
One suggestion is to place a one-activity cap on all your children (excluding church activities). But this may vary between families. “I think that some kids can handle more and I think that some parents can handle more. But I do think that’s a great place to start,” says Troutman, who asserts that families just need to evaluate beforehand what they think they can handle, and simply continue to evaluate as time goes on.
Something else that many experts suggest is that you sit down with your child and let them decide on things they want to do. Parents may first decide to have their children try a smattering of things that they think the child might like and that would be beneficial. But sometime, after the child has tried the activity for a while, it would be important to sit down with the child and ask what he or she likes and doesn’t like. That way, the child will have the benefits as well as the joy that comes from doing something fun.
Next, says Troutman, “Know your limits. Not only your limits as a parent, but also your child’s limits.” Make sure to put your child in things only he or she can handle. Soccer practice for two hours a day may not work for a child who takes three hours to complete daily homework. By the same token, placing your children in something too advanced for them will just end up frustrating everyone.
Most importantly: “Don’t be afraid of saying, ‘Wow; this doesn’t work,’” Troutman says. You will not be less of a parent for admitting you can’t do it all, and you will not cause your child to “fall behind”—they may just have the advantage over more harried children. So when family time just doesn’t seem to be working out, when things seem too hectic, that might be a time to stop and re-evaluate.
Look most closely at the essentials: family prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, meals together, attendance of mutual and youth activities, family attendance of church, and play time (individually and as a family). These things should all come first. It’s like the classic object lesson of putting the rocks, the pebbles, and the sand in a jar: if you put any of the smaller things in first, you won’t have room for the big things.
“We’re lucky that we have these religious leaders that have told us how to do it,” reminds Troutman. “Basically what they say is to make sure you’re doing things that are really important, as far as our eternal progression, then you can start incorporating these extracurricular activities that are nonessential supplements, but are also really beneficial.”
So as you decide what is right for your family, remember what an edge these supplements can give, but never forget to put what’s certainly best before what is extra good.
Just one more thing . . .
The Importance of Free Play
In the past couple decades, educators and parents have consumed themselves with preparing children for the future, using every activity for them to gain an advantage. However, frequently overlooked is one of the most important, tried-and-true learning opportunities: unstructured, child-driven free play.
In fact, a 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics asserted that free play was crucial to development. Some of the benefits of free play include:
- Experiential knowledge of how the world works (through trial and error)
- Experiential knowledge of how to cooperate and interact with others (instead of simply adhering to adult rules)
- Ability to adjust to and be ready for school time
- Parental understanding of the child’s viewpoints
- Protection against pressure and stress
- Cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being
Free play can include anything from blocks with younger children to baking with older children (but not watching TV or playing video games, which are passive activities). And although it should always include supervision, it should always be directed by the child.
Source: Kenneth R. Ginsburg, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” Pediatrics 199.1, January 2007: 182-191.
LDS Living, Jan/Feb 2009; Photo by Steve Woods