Want to raise a kid who excels at school and beyond? Think outside the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, extracurricular activities boost kids’ community connections and are linked to better grades and school attendance. But finding the right fit for your child isn’t always easy. What’s the right age to begin after-school classes? How can families choose activities that will enrich kids’ lives without added pressure, conflict, or unrealistic expectations? And how and when should parents encourage kids to persist—or decide when it’s time for a graceful exit? Read on for age-by-age guidance on finding extracurricular pursuits that round out your child’s education without ramping up stress.
EARLY YEARS 0-5
Parents shouldn’t rush tots into classes and clubs, says parent educator Tara Egan D.Ed., founder of Charlotte Parent Coaching. Young children enrolled in high-quality preschool are likely already participating in things like art, physical education, and music, so adding to their schedule might not yield much additional benefit.
If you do want to give classes a go, Egan offers a few guidelines for caregivers: First, make sure your child can separate comfortably from you before you register him or her for child-only courses; kids who aren’t quite ready can participate in parent-child gym or swim classes in the meantime. Next, ensure that your child’s coach has experience working with very young children. And look for classes that don’t require your child to stay up late or miss naptimes or meals, because hungry, tired kids won’t benefit much from any class.
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12
Grade-schoolers are often ready to play a larger role in choosing their own extracurricular activities, says Karen Petty, Ph.D., professor of family studies at Texas Woman’s University. Parents still need to guide kids’ selections with an eye toward managing the family’s overall schedule and bank account. “Choice-making builds self-efficacy and a sense of control over their time, which is a good thing,” she says. “But parents should put financial and time parameters on choices.”
Allowing kids to select from a short list of activities helps kids think through their choices, preventing them from jumping into a popular pastime simply because it’s popular. Say “you can choose between soccer or ballet” or ask them to choose activities that fit in your family schedule. Marking time commitments on a shared calendar (color-coding per child is helpful) helps kids see their activity fits into the family’s bigger picture.
TEEN YEARS 13-18
At some point, most teens find themselves at a crossroads with a commitment they’ve made and consider quitting. When a once-enjoyed pursuit yields more stress than enjoyment, it’s time for a talk with your teen.
“If a child is struggling with an activity they used to like, parents should attempt to find out why,” says Charlotte, North Carolina-based parenting coach Tara Egan. “Is there a mismatch between the coach and your child, or peer conflict? Most issues can be addressed through discussion.”
In general, parents should set an expectation that kids will finish out the sports season before quitting, because they’ve committed to teammates, says Egan. But there are some valid reasons to quit, too: If your child is exhausted and overscheduled, needs more time to focus on school, or simply wants to explore new horizons, help map an exit strategy that includes how and when to make the change. Make sure they thank the coach and let teammates know the decision