How to choose your child's next activity - 5 major considerations
Deciding which activity your child should do can be tricky. Spending a few minutes thinking about a few key areas should help your decision.
There’s an extra activity on the table. It could be swimming lessons, ballet classes, painting classes, coding classes or one of hundreds of different extra-curricular options available to kids these days. There are a number of good reasons for your child to start this activity and seemingly an equal number of reasons against. Like so many parenting decisions, this one is far from black and white.
I hope this (slightly-on-the-longer-side) article helps you with your decision making.
1. Benefits of the activity
Let’s start with the benefits of the activity.
Extra-curricular activities have been shown to have indisputable benefits for children with regards to physical, psychological and social development over and above that which is gained from school. And then, specifically, each activity will have its own set of unique benefits. Swimming will help your daughter develop strength and lung capacity; table tennis will help your son develop hand-eye co-ordination; you daughter’s jazz dance troupe will teach her about commitment to a team; your son’s participation in little athletics will build his overall fitness base; your daughter’s soccer matches will help her build confidence in herself and in her communication skills with others; etc.
Of course, not every activity is right for every child but the case for each child to do at least some extra-curricular activities is rock solid. The trick, really, is narrowing down the wide field of options for your child.
2. Drive to do the activity
The next thing to consider it the motivation to do the activity; specifically, is it an activity that you want your child to do, or are they asking to do it?
Push is from the parent
In this scenario, you want your child to participate in a specific activity because you ‘know it will be good for them.’ That is, you believe that by your child taking up this activity, they will do one or more of the following:
Learn a critical skill;
Address a particular area of development;
Promote an as-yet undeveloped talent; or
“Get as much out of it as I did as a kid.”
A classic example of a ‘push from the parent’ activity - swimming lessons. In Australia, for example, schools have mandatory water safety obligations to fulfil. However, rarely do these programs translate to swimming proficiency. Culturally, with over 2.7 million swimming pools in Australia, it is understood that every child needs to, at the very least, have a basic level of swimming ability. And so, weekly, millions of Australian kids are taken to swimming lessons, many against their will. Whilst there are many clear benefits to swimming, parents do this because, in Australia, it is considered to be a critical skill. In recent years, computer coding classes are slowly starting to fall into this category.
A lot of parents will push their children into an activity because they believe it will help address their child’s confidence issues. Performance-based activities such as music, dancing and gymnastics are often credited for steadying the child’s nerves in front of an audience or bringing them out of his/her shell.
A common occurrence is parents noticing a hint of interest or ability at home and enrolling the child in an activity in the hope of uncovering an untapped strength. Here you might find young children hitting balls with sticks, throwing sticks and drawing multiple colourful stick figures being immediately enrolled in baseball, athletics and art classes.
Finally, an even more common occurrence is when parents want their child to play football/piano/lacrosse or learn ballet/calisthenics/oil-painting just like they did as kids because they enjoyed it greatly and benefited tremendously. As parents, many of us fall into this trap… repeatedly. Since your child shares 50% of your DNA, there’s a reasonable chance they will like the same things you did as a kid. Of course, there’s an equal chance that they don’t, even if they display a natural aptitude for those activities. On the extreme end of this spectrum lie the parents who live vicariously through their children’s extra-curricular activities. Advice on those parents, however, is well above my pay-grade.
The key here, as a parent, is to be completely honest with yourself about why you want your child to participate in a particular activity that s/he is not necessarily pushing for.
Push is from the child
This scenario can sometimes be a touch trickier to unpack, depending on the child. The issue is that sometimes what a child says may not necessarily align with why they actually want to participate in the activity. For our purposes, let’s assume you understand your child’s motivations. They may include:
Enjoyment: Wanting to do what they take pleasure in;
Social acceptance: Wanting to do what’s cool/what their friends are doing;
Approval: Wanting to do what they think they should do.
Of the 3 motivations listed, enjoyment is the easiest for a parent to understand. No doubt as kids we all had pursuits we ourselves enjoyed, even if we can’t quite remember wanting to do something because we thought we’d enjoy it.
Social acceptance, however, is another kettle of fish altogether. As parents, we generally strive to teach children to think for themselves and not blindly follow others (“If everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you?”). That’s why your son wanting to play volleyball or your daughter wanting to play soccer “because all the cool kids are doing it” usually strikes a nerve with us when we first hear it. But if we take a step back, and try and remember all the way back to our childhoods, we can see that social acceptance amongst peers is very important for many kids and their psychological well-being. In my children’s school, the boys play football – all of them. If you’re a boy and you don’t play football, you’re certainly not shunned but it is significantly easier to feel included if you do play. So whilst our children’s reasoning may not be to our desired standards, it’s still worth considering if fundamentally we believe the activity will have an overall positive impact.
In the last category, there are the children who want to do certain activities because they think it will please their parents. Whilst this is less common, there are still plenty of kids who want to do karate because Dad did, or want to do singing lessons because it gives Mum so much joy to watch them sing. It’s this category that we, as parents, need to be most wary of because it’s so easy to fall into that trap. Seeing your child display an overt willingness to participate in an activity that you hold dear can sometimes blind you to other possibilities. I still wonder whether my eldest truly likes basketball or just loves knowing that I love watching her play a sport dear to me.
3. Opportunity cost of the activity
Now we need to look at the opportunity cost of your child participating in the activity. In other words, what in their week will be replaced by this activity? Broadly speaking, the new activity will likely take the place of either free time or another activity. And when it comes to free time, the considerations for younger children differ from those of older children.
Replacing free time – younger children
Free time for younger children is widely considered to be an essential part of their development. And when you think about it, it makes sense. Free time gives younger children an opportunity to explore, to relax, to use their imagination, develop their social skills, and many other benefits. Of course, what also needs to be considered is the environment in which they have free time. Most parents wouldn’t consider flicking through YouTube on the iPad for 2 hours straight a productive use of free time.
For our purposes, we’ll assume most of the free time young children have is productive or beneficial for a young child’s development. Therefore, what needs to be considered here is how much free time they currently have available during the week outside of school hours.
Replacing free time – older children
Free time for older children can be just as critical, but in different ways. Older children utilise their free time in all sorts of productive and unproductive ways. Let's assume the activity will replace ‘productive’ free time (and not spending 3 hours per week generating misspelled, unfunny memes to send on Whatsapp). Productive free time for older children may include:
Socialising with friends
Unless you don’t particularly like your child’s friends, you would agree that the points above can all play a critical role in your child’s well-being. The question then becomes: how much free time does your child currently have during the week? And what impact will replacing 1-4 hours of that time with an activity have on your child?
For children who spend as much as 20 hours per week consuming content on screens (TV, phones, tablets, laptops) – that is, watching shows/movies/video clips as opposing to working or creating something – carving an hour or two out will clearly be beneficial. It’s not so clear cut, however, when you have a teenager in high school who already participates in a number of activities per week, may have a part-time job and has an ever-increasing amount of homework. Cutting into that child’s free time may, on balance, have a net negative overall impact even if the proposed activity is “a good one.”
Replacing another activity
Lastly, what if the proposed activity simply replaces a current activity? If this is the case, then at first glance all you really need to do is compare the benefits of the proposed activity vs the current activity. If one has a longer list than the other, then there’s your answer… almost. The other thing to consider is how the proposed activity fits within the portfolio of activities your child does.
Take Andrea, 12, for example. Andrea is quite an all-rounder and thoroughly enjoys physical and creative pursuits. She currently plays soccer, does athletics and plays the piano. All her friends are now playing hockey. She’s played a little with them at school… and loves it! Logistically, hockey will be easy to trade for piano lessons as they’re scheduled at the same time during the week. And when she writes down the list of benefits for hockey and piano, it’s a legitimate tie between the two. Simple. Except, if Andrea does that, then she’s saying goodbye to the one creative pursuit in her weekly activities. Not so simple.
4. Other key considerations
There are two other important elements to consider about the activity itself:
How much to do
Often the activity's timings are set so there’s not much to decide. If you want to join this tennis team, you need to train for an hour on Tuesdays and then play for 2 hours on Sundays; if you want to join this ballet troupe, rehearsals are on Mondays and Wednesdays for 45 minutes each and there will be 3 competitions throughout the year that you are expected to attend.
When the timings are not so rigid, it is worth asking yourself a few questions about why your child is pursuing this activity before settling on the number of hours to dedicate to it weekly. For example:
Just trying it out? 1 session of 30 mins to 1 hour for the week is plenty.
Need a physical release? Depending on the age of the child and the other activities they do, anywhere from 30 mins to 3 hours weekly might be appropriate.
Social exercise? If one of the key reasons for the activity is social, and all the child’s friends dedicate 1.5 hours per week to the activity, then it makes sense to also commit 1.5 hours weekly.
The right activity provider
This one’s a big one. (And at Activity Book, don’t we know it!). Obviously, we would all love the institutions that guide our children to be completely perfect. Whilst that’s not realistic, there are some key elements you’ll want to see in a children’s activity provider before committing to them. Specifically, you want them to be:
Trustworthy – This is the most important element in a children’s activity provider since you will not be there yourself. Your child should feel 100% safe at all times at their chosen activity and in the event of an emergency, you should feel comfortable that the provider will look after your child. In Australia, all children’s activity providers should have up-to-date Working-With-Children check at a minimum.
Good with kids – Some providers may have instructors who are very good at what they do, but not so good with kids. In certain circumstances, this will be okay for older children, or children who are extremely proficient in a particular activity, but usually it is better if the instructors know how to relate well to kids.
Proficient at what they do – On the flip-side to the point above, it’s no good having an instructor who is great with kids but not particularly good at the particular activity. This happens very rarely but it’s easy to look out for.
You will also want them to have:
Ideal class sizes – Specifically, you will want an ideal instructor-to-child ratio. This will vary from activity to activity but essentially you want your child to get enough attention in the class. It’s no good having the best instructors in the world if the class sizes are too big to manage.
Good facilities – Children’s activity providers are often small businesses so you can’t expect them to have professional or Olympic level facilities. Nor do they actually need them. That said, for each activity type there is a bare minimum of facilities required in order for the activity to run well and for the children to benefit from each session.
A simple way to assess the points above is to read online reviews about the provider and speak to other parents. If this isn’t quite enough, you should call the provider yourself and ask them the questions you’d like answered. Better yet, pop in to see one of the classes or training sessions. Most providers will be more than happy to chat with prospective customers and show them around. If they’re not, this is usually a red flag.
Okay, fantastic! We’ve considered everything from our child’s point of view so we’re ready to make a decision. Well, almost ready. There’s one other consideration – the rest of the family.
5. Broader impact on the family
Okay, almost there. Before you merrily skip along to enrol your child in the Advanced Tapestry classes you so carefully chose, there are a couple of family-related items you need to make sure you’ve considered.
Incremental cost: For budgeting purposes, you have to assume that your child will be doing this new activity indefinitely. If this activity is replacing less expensive one, are you prepared for the incremental financial cost? Indeed, if this activity is replacing free time, the total additional cost to the family is more. Just do the sums before you commit.
Logistics: Are you able to get your child to and from this new activity? If not, can you be included in a roster with other parents?
Other children: If you have other children, you’ll know that deciding upon something significant for one child can often affect the other(s). The critical questions to ask yourself here are:
Will your other children also want to do the activity? If so, is that possible for you from logistical and financial points of view?
Do your children all roughly do the same number of extra-curricular activities? If not, will this additional activity bring up the classic calls of, “It’s not fair!”
Will a new activity for one kid simply take time away from another child? For example, your 11-year-old’s new Wednesday afternoon cello lessons mean you can’t play tennis with your 9-year-old, like you used to.
There you have it. Easy! In all seriousness, whilst there is a lot to consider, these are not life or death decisions. Parents are often way too hard on themselves and that is in no small part due to the multitude of forceful opinions online and in traditional media telling us what we should and shouldn’t do.
When it comes to your children’s extra-curricular activities, after considering all the points above you will likely have a gut feeling one way or another. If you choose to go ahead with a particular activity and it doesn’t work out, you can easily stop the activity. The same applies in reverse. Our main contention is that simply putting a little bit of thought into this decision-making process can yield better results for you and your kids.